Is soda bread the world's easiest loaf, do you like it brown or white, and what do you eat with it beyond butter or honey?
A wiser woman than me (Elizabeth David) once wrote that "everyone who cooks, in however limited a way, should know how to make a loaf of soda bread" – and, as with so much else in life (apart from spaghetti alle vongole), she's right. Even if you live next door to the world's best artisan bakery, or you're quite content with your supermarket sliced, there is no denying the satisfaction of a loaf that can be in the oven in less time than it takes to brew a pot of tea, and is ready to eat by the time you get out of the shower.
The first time I saw soda bread made – at Pierce and Valerie McAuliffe's cookery school in the grounds of Dunbrody Abbey, County Wexford – I was astonished that bread could be so easy. No need for proving or kneading – the simplicity of these chemically raised breads made them popular throughout the British Isles in the late 19th century, but they were particularly embraced in rural Ireland, where available equipment tended to run to a pot oven and a peat fire.
Ireland remains the heartland of soda bread today. Filling and wholesome, it pops up at almost every meal, and is so universal that the more common wholemeal version is generally known simply as brown or wheaten bread. It goes with everything from salty yellow butter to soup, smoked salmon to soft cheese, and creates very little in the way of washing-up. Seriously, can you afford not to have a recipe for soda bread in your life?
Soda bread can be made with white or brown flour, although, as David points out in her English Bread and Yeast Cookery, there is little point using strong bread flour here: the Irish often talk of a "cake" of brown bread, which gives you a fair idea of the texture to aim for. Moist and crumbly, rather than light and airy, is the name of the game. I'll be concentrating on the wholemeal variety – white soda bread is nice enough, but you can't beat the dark, dense, almost absurdly wholesome kind.
Patrick Ryan uses 100% wholemeal flour, "the coarser the better", in the book Bread Revolution, as does David, and Rose Prince in her Pocket Bakery book, with the caveat that it should be "properly grainy". Chef Richard Corrigan uses half wholemeal and half white flour in The Clatter of Forks and Spoons, and Darina Allen uses one part white to just over five parts wholemeal in Forgotten Skills of Cooking.
It can't be denied that a proportion of plain flour gives a lighter result, but that's not what I'm after here. If you'd like a loaf to eat every day, then by all means swap in half the amount of white flour, but I love the nubbly texture and nutty flavour of the wholemeal loaves; they feel ridiculously good for me. Try to get the coarsest ground flour you can; health food shops are often fruitful hunting grounds, or visit the likes of Shipton Mill online.
Prince and Corrigan use rolled oats in their bread, which I'm also a fan of: the more grains the merrier.
Buttermilk, the thin liquid runoff from buttermaking, is apparently the traditional liquid ingredient. Most commercially available buttermilk in this country is actually artificially soured milk, and somewhat thicker than the real thing. That said, it works perfectly well for the purpose, which is to react with bicarbonate of soda to kickstart the raising process. Prince suggests you can substitute milk soured with lemon juice, which works in exactly the same way – or if you're feeling really thrifty, soda bread is an ideal final destination for sour milk. (Ryan uses milk and red-wine vinegar, which gives his bread a little more of a tang, although it's a fine substitute if that's all you've got in the way of acid.)
Ryan and Allen put olive oil in their bread, which I think is supposed to give it a harder crust and a crumblier interior, but it doesn't make much difference. Allen also adds an egg, but I find her bread slightly too light; it could almost pass for a moist yeasted loaf, whereas I want something rather more substantial. Keeping it traditional by just using buttermilk suits me fine.
Bicarbonate of soda
In my experience, one of the things that puts people off soda bread is the bitter tang of bicarbonate of soda, so it's important to get the balance right: just enough to raise the bread, but not enough to taint the flavour. Prince uses the most: two teaspoons per 450g of flour and oats, twice as much as Allen, yet the latter's loaf rises well enough.
Happily (for me, if not my health), the Irish are not shy of salt, but David's two teaspoons are excessive; half the amount does the trick for modern palates. Balancing it with a little sugar is not strictly necessary, and Prince's molasses are a little too tangily assertive for my liking, but I think Corrigan's treacle works wonderfully with the nuttiness of the brown flour. He and Allen both use honey as well, which adds a purer, clearer sweetness (unrefined sugar, as in Ryan's recipe, would work well as a substitute).
Prince kneads her dough lightly for a minute or so, but I'm with Rory O'Connell here: as he cautions in his book Master It, "soda breads need only the minimum amount of handling … kneading the dough is unnecessary and will actually toughen the bread." Why bother dirtying a work surface for nothing?
Allen, Prince and Ryan all bake their loaves in a tin, which is perhaps more practical, but I nostalgically prefer the free-form version I first learned to make, slashed into quarters to help it cook all the way through –and, more popularly, to bless the bread. (I can't quite recall the significance of dotting the four quarters – is it something to do with fairies?) The free-form loaf also has the benefit of having more crust – I love the contrast of textures between this and the soft, cakey crumb.
David suggests baking the bread beneath a cake tin, and other recipes use a cast-iron casserole to mimic the traditional pot oven – this is to ensure it "remains moist and [doesn't] form too hard and dry a crust". Corrigan cools it under a damp tea towel for the same reason, which seems to do the trick, but even better is the Cook's Illustrated suggestion of brushing it with melted butter. The more butter the better, after all.
The perfect soda bread
(Makes 1 loaf)
450g coarse wholemeal flour
50g rolled oats
1 tsp salt
1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tbsp treacle
1 tbsp honey
450ml buttermilk (or sour milk, or milk with 1 tbsp lemon juice)
1 tbsp melted butter, to finish
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6 and grease a baking sheet.
Once the oven has come to temperature, put all the dry ingredient into a large mixing bowl and whisk together to combine. Make a well in the middle. Stir the treacle and honey into the buttermilk until well mixed, then pour this into the well and, very quickly, stir together with your hands until you have a soft, sticky dough.
Form this into a round on your baking sheet and cut a deep cross in the dough. Bake for 50 minutes to an hour, keeping an eye on it, until the crust is golden and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped underneath.
Brush with melted butter and leave to cool before tearing into it. Eat as soon as possible, as it doesn't keep very well.
Is soda bread the world's easiest bread, or do you have another speedy favourite? Do you like it brown and wholesome or fruity, white and sweet? And, now I've got a glut, what do you do it with it once you've gorged yourself on butter and honey?
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image: © Migle Seikyte