Baked: Adventures in Soda Bread

Last year I was put squarely in my place when the soda bread I keep bragging about failed to place in the Irish American Heritage Museum’s baking contest.

Undeterred, I plunged back in this year armed not only with my family recipe, but with an entry in their traditional brown category.

Traditional? Yes.

You see, what passes for soda bread in America is a sweet, cakey bread that’s often filled with raisins, caraway seeds, and other fancy things. But real soda bread, the type served at every meal if you visit Ireland, has just four ingredients: flour, buttermilk, salt, and baking soda. It’s rustic and simple, but spread with a little butter there are few things more delicious.

So, Saturday March 8 was a grand day down on Broadway at the the storefront museum; the whole place was fragrant with soda bread, and as the judges ploughed through their tasting, the contestants and others were digging into huge piles of soda bread, from the diverse assortment of American style recipes to the rough loaves of traditional bread made with either wheat or white flour.

To my surprise and amazement, my brown soda bread caught the fancy of the judges and was awarded first prize. Dumbstruck, when asked for my secret, I blurted out that my grandparents came from County Cork and that I’d been working hard for years on my bread recipe. The first part was true, but the second? That might have been a bit of blarney.

Oh… the winning recipe:

  • 18 oz. whole grain wheat flour
  • 1 ½ tsp salt
  • 1 ½ tsp baking soda
  • 18 fluid oz. buttermilk

First of all, weigh your flour; never measure it by volume. Mix all ingredients and gently knead until smooth. Don’t overdo it! Form dough into a ball and press down until maybe 1.5 – 2 inches thick. Make sure it’s nice and round. Place on lightly greased baking sheet or on parchment paper. Lightly score an ‘X’ in the top and bake in 400 degree oven for 34 minutes. Yes, I said 34 minutes. Or until it’s done.

And how can one bread with four ingredients be better than another bread with the same four ingredients? It a little bit about technique and a lot about luck.

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