VIDEO: How to make Irish Soda Bread
As any leprechaun will tell you, the key to good soda bread is to avoid overworking either yourself or the dough in the process. Kind of like a giant scone or biscuit, soda bread is easy and quick to make, as long as you observe some commonsense guidelines.
Whether you’re starting with dough or batter, gluten, the protein in flour (activated by liquid), gives all baked goods their structure. With yeast breads, you have to work the gluten into long strands, via kneading, so that hot air can get in between them. With cakes, muffins, and “quick” breads such as soda bread, however, it’s important to mix the ingredients just until they’re combined and holding together.
Traditional Irish soda bread is made from only four ingredients: flour, baking soda, salt, and sour milk or buttermilk, which activates the baking soda and adds a tang that masks soda’s natural bitterness. This adapted recipe uses just a wee bit of baking soda and a tablespoon of baking powder, for lightness. Raisins, caraway seeds, egg, and a bit of sugar are flavorful extras.
We’re pretty sure that Europeans learned the technique of leavening with carbonates instead of yeast from Native Americans, who added ash from wood fires to their doughs. In Ireland, soda bread has been a staple since the 1840s, when commercial baking soda was introduced there as a leavening agent for the country’s “soft” (low-protein) wheat flours. Here in the States, it’s become a cherished St. Paddy’s Day tradition, whatever your ethnic heritage.
Baking soda is pure sodium bicarbonate. When combined with moisture and an acidic ingredient, it quickly produces carbon dioxide bubbles, which expand when heated, causing baked goods to rise. Be careful to use only recommended amounts, however, to avoid leaving a salty, bitter taste behind.
Baking powder contains sodium bicarbonate with cream of tartar (a potassium acid salt) and cornstarch (which keeps things dry). It has a bit more staying power than baking soda and has a more neutral taste. One more quick-bread tip: Don’t overbake your loaf, which will dry it out, but be careful not to underbake; you don’t want it to come out doughy and uncooked in the middle, either.