The short but fascinating history of Irish soda bread

When you think of classic Irish food, you probably picture a feast of Irish stew, cottage pie, black pudding and plenty of potatoes… But what about Irish soda bread? Almost every family in Ireland has its own recipe for this delicious bread, hand-written on a slip of floury paper, or tucked away in an old cookbook.

While its ingredients may be simple, soda bread is an Irish tradition that has led the country through some of its darkest times. We take a look at the short but powerful history of the famous bread.

When was soda bread first created?

This simple Irish classic is a staple in many households, used to mop up hearty stews and wash down pots of tea. It’s also a symbol of celebration, baked in droves in the lead up to Saint Patrick’s Day. However, the humble soda bread began as an affordable necessity and was the solution to many food problems facing Ireland at the time. 

While soda bread is most famously attributed to Ireland, it was actually first created by Native Americans. They were the first to be documented using pearl ash, a natural form of soda formed from the ashes of wood, to leaven their bread without yeast. 

The Irish later discovered and replicated the process. While it seems like an ancient recipe, Irish soda bread history began in the 1830s, when baking soda, or bicarbonate soda, was first introduced to the country.

What are the ingredients in traditional Irish soda bread?

At the time, widespread famine meant bread had to be made out of the most basic and cheapest ingredients available.

The four ingredients were soft wheat flour, salt, baking soda and sour milk (buttermilk is more commonly used today). Since yeast wasn’t readily available, the combination of baking soda and buttermilk acted as the leavening agent, causing the bread to rise. 

The soft wheat flour was better for quick breads, rather than the hard wheat flour typically found in yeasted bread. Since Ireland’s unique climate was only suitable to grow soft wheat, soda bread was the perfect match for the country.

How Irish soda bread was made

Many Irish families also lived in isolated farm areas with no access to ovens, and soda bread solved this problem too. The bread was cooked in three-legged iron pots or baked on griddles over open hearths. This gave the bread its famous hard crust, dense texture, and slightly sour tang.

The unique texture of soda bread is a result of the reaction between the acidic sour milk and baking soda, which formed small bubbles of carbon dioxide in the dough.

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The shape of soda bread is also steeped in tradition. The Northern regions of Ireland divide their dough into four triangular shapes, with each triangle cooked on a flat griddle. 

The Southern Irish regions bake their loaves in a classic round fashion and cut a cross on top of the bread. This was done for superstitious reasons, as families believed a cross on top of the bread would let the fairies out or ward off evil and protect the household.

The method of cooking soda bread is very quick, and it was usually made every two to three days and eaten with the main meal. The traditional way to eat soda bread is to break off a piece, split it and slather it in butter.

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Can you still find soda bread in Ireland?

Bread-making is a hugely important part of the country’s identity. Irish soda bread was such an integral part of daily life in almost every home, and this reliable bread has stood the test of time.

Today, you don’t have to go far in Ireland to smell the aroma of soda bread wafting out of a bakery, while many Irish families still bake their own bread from cherished recipes passed down through the generations. 

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There’s even a Society For the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread. The organisation is dedicated to protecting this national culinary treasure. They encourage people to get to know their Irish roots and learn to make traditional Irish soda bread. 

They pay tribute to how far the Irish have come since the famine years (known as An Gorta Mor), when soda bread was often the only thing on the table to eat. The society is also quite firm on the traditional ingredients of soda bread:

Flour, Salt, Baking Soda, Buttermilk.  
Anything else added makes it a “Tea Cake!”

Modern versions of Irish soda bread

While the basic ingredients have remained the same, many Irish families add their own extras like raisins, caraway seeds and honey.

No two soda breads are ever the same, and you’ll find all sorts in bakeries, from brown soda bread filled with grains, to more modern crusty white loaves made with flavourings like treacle, Guinness, cream of tartar, orange zest, oats, herbs or walnuts. 

And while the flavours of soda bread may have evolved over the years, the way to eat it hasn’t; sliced open and slathered with creamy Irish butter.

Do you have a traditional Irish soda bread recipe? Have you ever tried this Irish classic? Let us know in the comments below!

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