You’ve gotta love an Irish soda bread recipe that includes the instruction, “Poke a hole in the four corners of the bread to release the fairies and stop them from cursing your beautiful bread.”
That’s a real Irish recipe for you. Let’s face it; the rest of us have absolutely made hard-as-a-rock soda bread when we’ve attempted it in the past. Gemma Stafford, the native Irishwoman behind Gemma’s Bigger Bolder Baking, is here to save you. We eavesdropped on the tips she doled out at our St. Patrick’s Day Baking class (part of our epic, ongoing Baking School!) They’re too tasty not to share (in addition to her recipe, below), and just in time for St. Patty’s.
1. Use a Mix of Whole Wheat and White Flours
That’s what real Irish folk often do! In Ireland, too, the flour is more coarsely ground. (And while you’re at it, be sure your whole wheat flour was in the fridge, or it may have gone rancid.) The mix of flours keeps the bread light, not heavy and chewy.
2. Easy on the Baking Soda
Sure, we all want a super-fluffy loaf, and might want to sneak in a little more baking soda than the teaspoon required below. But restrain yourself! Gemma says too much baking soda can turn your bread green, which even for St. Patty’s might be a bit much for folks.
3. Use an Easy Buttermilk Hack
Sometimes it seems like only Southerners have buttermilk handy. If you’re someone who never has it in the fridge, take a minute to add two tablespoons of fresh lemon juice or white vinegar to that scant cup of milk to equal a full cup. It’s an easy buttermilk hack to use for biscuits or bread. As Gemma notes, acid tenderizes flour.
4. Don’t Overdevelop the Gluten!
It’s so, so easy to overdevelop gluten (read: create tough dough) by over-kneading and over-handling it. So although Gemma’s instructions to hold back liquid while mixing and making the dough as quickly as possible might seem fussy, it’s the key, she says, to a light, fluffy bread.
5. Consider the Traditional Cross
Some Irish folks won’t touch a soda bread without a cross on it. “Bless the bread by putting a cross in it,” says Gemma. “Ward off any evil between here and beyond.” And there’s more! “A prick in every quadrant releases any fairies that would curse the bread.” Talk about a fun recipe to make with little kids!
6. Knock, Knock, and It’s Done
“To check doneness, give it a knock,” says Gemma. “If it sounds hollow, it’s done!” So easy, and so delicious. Here’s the recipe.
Traditional Irish Soda Bread (Brown Bread)
- 1 3/4 cups (9 oz/265 g) whole wheat flour (fine or coarsely ground)
- 1 3/4 cups (9 oz/265 g) all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp. Kosher salt
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- 2 Tbs. (1 oz/28 g) salted Irish butter, cold
- 1 large egg
- 1 1/2 cups (12 fl oz/340 ml) buttermilk
- roughly 1 Tbs. rolled oats
- Preheat the oven to 425°F (215°C).
- Mix together the flours, salt, and baking soda in a large bowl. Add the butter and rub into the flour mixture with your fingertips until it resembles bread crumbs.
- In a separate jug, whisk the egg and buttermilk together.
- Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour the liquid, 3/4 at once, into the flour mixture.
- Using an open hand bring the flour and liquid together to a loose dough. The dough should be quite soft, but not too sticky. You will know then if it needs more of the liquids. (Flour in different places reacts differently to added liquid).
- Turn onto a floured work surface and gently bring the dough together into a round about 1 1/2 inches (4cm) thick (8 inches by 8 inches).
- Place on a baking sheet dusted well with flour.
- Score the bread by blessing it with a deep cross on top. Poke a hole in the 4 corners of the bread to release the fairies and stop them from cursing your beautiful bread.
- Glaze the bread with the leftover bit of buttermilk in your jug and dust the top with rolled oats. Bake for 15 minutes, then turn down the oven to 400°F (200°C) and bake for 30 minutes more. When done, the loaf will sound slightly hollow when tapped on the bottom. Remove from the baking sheet and place on a wire rack to cool.
- Store bread covered at room temperature for 4 days. It’s great to accompany soup or toast it up and slather it in Irish butter.