How to make Traditional Brown Soda Bread
The adaptation of traditional recipes is always an adventure, as it employs experimentation, exploration, and learning along the way. Offering courses at Colstoun has opened our eyes to new ways of cooking traditional recipes that can be adapted for new technology, appliances, and tastes. Working with our cookery school manager Alison who is from Northern Ireland, our family from Australia, and course students from all over the world, we’re constantly finding new ways to explore old traditions.
One recipe that’s quick, easy, and packed full of history is Irish brown soda bread. Our recipe is adapted from a recipe in the Irish domestic science school cookery book It's All In The Cooking by Colaiste Mhuire. According to The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread, the earliest mention of a traditional brown soda bread recipe is from County Down, Ireland, 1836. An article in London’s Farmer’s Magazine referenced that recipe and the Irish correspondent of Newry Telegraph who stated, “There is no bread to be had equal to it for invigorating the body, promoting digestion, strengthening the stomach..." Following his printed recipe—not far off from our own—he states that this bread is the most wholesome food to have ever entered a man’s stomach. We absolutely agree and think it is great.
When traditional recipes like this involve so few ingredients, the texture and taste you’re trying to reach is reliant on quality ingredients and finding up-to-scratch substitutes. Alison notes that in Ireland she would use Howard's One-way coarse wholemeal flour, but here in Scotland our favorite substitute is Mungoswells. Traditionally, rural families would have a cow but no fridge, leaving the fresh milk for drinking and the soured milk for bread making. Today, we consider buttermilk and appropriate substitute for anyone without a cow in the back paddock (including us).
With regard to the baking process, there is no yeast used in the rising process, which means this quick bread can be made into scones in less than 40 minutes. Soda breads rely on the chemical reaction between the alkaline bicarbonate of soda and the acidic buttermilk, a reaction that produces carbon dioxide bubbles in the presence of water and warmth, which pushes the bread to rise without yeast. In the journal "Chemistry and Chemical Analysis" by the Ireland Commissioners of National Education published in 1861, they recognized that, “Although it is very desirable that bread should be light, it is not always possible to obtain yeast… Nevertheless, it is said to have properties, which render it at least as wholesome as that which is made with yeast.”
When looking for what to top this wholesome bread with, consider sweet or salty, hot or cold, as they’re delicious with a range of accompaniments. They’re best served warm from the oven, of course, but can be topped with anything from a crumbly cheddar to a chunky chutney, or just a nice cold pat of salted Irish butter.
Cooking time: 30 - 40 minutes - Serves: 8
4oz coarse wholemeal flour (I use Mungoswells)
4oz plain flour
0.25 tsp salt
0.25 tsp bread soda
0.25 pint buttermilk or sour milk
Preheat oven to 200°C
Put the flours and salt into a bowl, add the butter, cut into small pieces and rub it into the flour. Sieve in the bread soda and mix well together.
Mix to a loose dough with the buttermilk, turn onto a floured board, knead lightly, flatten out with the heal of your hand into a circle, about 0.5" thick. Cut in half, quarters and the eighths to give triangles.
Place on a lined baking tray, brush the top with milk and bake in a hot oven for about 20 minutes. Tap the base of a scone; if it sounds hollow, it is ready.