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Recipe Spotlight

The Folklore Behind Irish Soda Bread

And how to make it at home.

Published Mar. 15, 2018.

Guinness beef stew and corned beef and cabbage have established their places on St. Patrick’s Day menus, but don’t sleep on brown soda bread (in fact, it goes well with both of these dishes). This rustic, crackly baked good is an important part of Irish history and is also one of the fastest bread recipes you’ll ever bake from scratch. (Our recipe only requires 10 minutes of hands-on work!)

Read on for some folklore, fun facts, and recipe tips about soda bread that you can put to use this St. Patrick’s Day (and really, any time of the year).

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10 ingredients. 45 minutes. Quick, easy, and fresh weeknight recipes.

1. Soda Bread’s Shape Reflects the Region You’re From

In Northern Ireland, people prefer the style of “farl,” while in Southern Ireland they prefer “cake.” Farl, which translates to “four-part,” is normally rolled out into a circle, cut into four pieces, and baked in a frying pan rather than in an oven. Cake, on the other hand, is the version most often replicated in the States (and also of our recipes). It’s the word used to describe soda bread that has been kneaded into a flat, round shape and baked in the oven.

2. Cutting a Cross on Top of Your Soda Bread Keeps the Devil Out

In the 19th century, it was believed that a cross slashed atop your bread let the devil out while the bread baked. It was also believed that the symbolism can be interpreted as blessing the bread and giving thanks. But there’s actually a practical reason behind the cruciform shape: These openings in the dough allow the bread to rise without splitting. Make sure your serrated knife is sharp; you want the knife to cut—not drag—through the dough.


Brown Soda Bread

Homemade bread for dinner after just 10 minutes’ work? It can be done. We wanted a wholesome loaf that was hearty, not heavy.
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3. Brown Soda Bread Is a Reflection of Your Social Status

Or it was during the 19th century. During this time in Europe, white bread was the preferred bread of the rich while the poor were left with brown bread. In fact, as Colman Andrews recounted in his cookbook The Country Cooking of Ireland, in some parts of Ireland, brown bread was so associated with poverty that schoolchildren who had it in their lunch used to eat it on the way to school to avoid the noontime taunting of their peers.

4. Save That Extra Foam the Bartender Pours You for Your Soda Bread

In the 1800s, barm—that foam that forms on top of liquor—was used to leaven soda bread. Baking soda, which is what’s used to leaven soda bread today, wasn’t yet known by Irish folks.

5. Traditional Irish Brown Soda Bread Is Made with Irish Wholemeal Flour

Irish wholemeal flours consist of entire wheat kernels that have been dried and ground to a powder. It’s softer than American wheat—but it’s also difficult to find in American supermarkets. The best substitute proved to be a combination of unbleached white flour and whole-wheat flour, plus some wheat germ for nuttiness. (Brown soda bread isn’t the only recipe where the type of flour you use can have a major effect on the final dish. That's why our cookbook Bread Illustrated includes detailed information on the seven basic flours every bread baker should have in their pantry.)

6. Baking Powder Is the Surprising Key to Lightening the Loaf

Though it's not traditionally used in soda bread, it provided our bread the proper lift. We tried different tactics before coming to this conclusion. Bread flour? That was a no go. More baking soda? Sure, if you like a chemical, soapy taste to your bread. We found that using equal amounts of the two leaveners (baking powder and baking soda) lightened the bread without changing its flavor. (Try our online cooking class to learn more common mistakes or tips when it comes to brown soda bread.)

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