If there is one thing you should make (or learn to make) for Saint Patrick’s Day, it is Irish Soda Bread. In fact, you should make (or learn to make) Irish soda bread, period, whenever you may be reading this.
I bet you already have all the ingredients in your kitchen right now. Here they are: Flour, salt, baking soda, milk or buttermilk, and vinegar (if you don’t have buttermilk). There’s no kneading or special equipment required. All you need is a bowl, a large spoon, a baking sheet, and a sharp knife.
I first tasted ‘real’ Irish soda bread at Ballymaloe House in County Cork, Ireland, where, a chance conversation with one of the hotel restaurant’s bakers led to a 5 am private class on soda bread and scones. Since then, I’ve stuck fastidiously to the proportions she gave me, and they have never failed me. Her recipe, now my recipe, is of course, the Ballymaloe recipe, rewritten here as I made it this morning. If you don’t have buttermilk on hand, sour some fresh milk or even some vegetable milk (for a vegan version) by stirring 2 Tbs. lemon juice or vinegar into 2 cups milk. A sour-ish milk is essential; the acid is what activates the baking soda and makes the bread rise.
1 lb./450 g./ 3 ¾ cup unbleached white flour
1 tsp./5 g. baking soda
1 tsp./5 g. salt
1 ¾ to 2 cups (300 to 400 ml.) cold buttermilk or soured milk
PREHEAT the oven to 450˚F/230˚C. Lightly grease a large baking sheet.
WHISK or sift together the flour, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl. Make a well (an indentation) in the center of the dry ingredients, and add 1 ¾ cup (200 ml) of the buttermilk or soured milk. Stir with a spatula or wooden spoon just until the dough comes together, adding the remaining buttermilk or sour milk, if necessary.
TURN the dough onto a well-floured work surface, sprinkle the top with flour, and shape into a 1-inch thick round. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet, and cut a deep cross in the top of the bread with a sharp knife all the way from one side to another—‘to let the fairies out’ and give the bread some room to rise.
BAKE the soda bread 15 minutes at 450˚/230˚. Lower the oven heat to 400˚F/200˚C, and bake 30 minutes more, or until the soda bread is a deep golden brown all over. Tap the bottom of the bread to test it; if it sounds hollow then it is done. Cool at least 15 minutes before slicing and serving.
Soda bread is best eaten the day it’s made, but it’s very good toasted the next day, too.