Irish Soda Bread

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With St. Patrick's day coming up, I wanted to try out some new Irish soda bread recipes. My standby has been Simply Recipes', but a couple new ones caught my eye. Why not bake a few and compare? So that's what I did. 

The candidates

This first is from The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread. I always knew my beloved loaf studded with raisins and pats of butter was an Americanized version of the Irish classic. Attracted to authenticity, I wanted to test the stripped down, real-deal recipe. 

 The real-deal, no bells or whistles.

The real-deal, no bells or whistles.

The second is from The Silver Palate Cookbook. It falls under the "Best Breads" section and is titled "Grandma Clark's Soda Bread" with a tagline: "An authentic gift from the Irish." Noting its ample additions, I had my doubts about its authenticity. (The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread totes the phrase: "Flour, salt, baking soda, buttermilk. Anything else added makes it a "Tea Cake!.") But, I couldn't deny it sure did sound tasty! So it joined the list.

 The Silver Palate Cookbook's version.

The Silver Palate Cookbook's version.

The third is my tried and true from Simply Recipes. Elise comes right out and admits that her recipe is an Americanized version. But, compared to the Silver Palate's, it is restrainedly so. Since it has held up as my favorite so far, I chose to bake it again. It seemed good for comparison too.

 Simply Recipes' version.

Simply Recipes' version.

the results

Unsurprisingly, the "authentic" soda bread was humble with not too much going on. I'm an unabashed bread lover, though, so it still hit the spot. The rest of the family agreed that it was simple, but had a yummy flavor. (Its flavor becomes more pronounced the next day.) The final consensus was that it makes for a good dinner bread. As it uses everyday ingredients and bakes up within an hour, it got me wondering why I reserve soda bread solely for St. Patrick's day. This recipe is going to start making a more regular appearance, that's for sure! It's easy and convenient, plus its simple flavor profile makes it a fantastic compliment for practically any meal. It certainly won't clash or compete! It's baking method solved a yearly soda bread issue for me too. More on that later. 

The Silver Palate recipe was by far the sweetest (no surprise). While we all thoroughly enjoyed it, we agreed it was a bit overboard as a dinner bread. It falls much more comfortably within the "breakfast" category, being more of a muffin in texture and taste. As it doesn't require any kneading, I'd recommend it without hesitation to those who balk at kneading. Especially as every soda bread recipe I've ever looked at emphasizes NOT to over-mix or over-knead. Moreover, it looks gorgeous filling the entire skillet and would make a lovely addition to a breakfast spread. Due to its higher levels of sugar and butter, it keeps better too.

 The two extremes, authentic on the left and Silver Palate on the right.

The two extremes, authentic on the left and Silver Palate on the right.

The Simply Recipes version held out as a happy medium. It has a touch of sweetness from the added sugar and raisins as well as a slightly more tender crumb from the egg and butter. Its perfectly acceptable for dinner, but still a yummy treat. All in all, it remains as delicious and satisfying as I remembered. Plus, baking it in a covered pot (the technique called for in the authentic recipe) cooked it all the way through. Finally! In past years, it always turned out a tad doughy in the middle.  

 Top to bottom: authentic, Simply Recipes, and Silver Palate.

Top to bottom: authentic, Simply Recipes, and Silver Palate.

So, any hands down winner? Not exactly. It depends on your tastes. I lean towards Simply Recipes and the authentic versions. I don't mind simplicity, and both versions are hearty, filling breads. At the same time, I do love some additions, especially caraway seeds and raisins or currants. I see myself using the authentic recipe, but adding those in. (I know, the scandal!) But the Silver Palate version was preferred by several other family members. I, mean, c'mon, it does come close to tasting like cake! So, it depends on what you like. Here are the recipes:

Authentic soda bread

Yield: One round loaf

Ingredients:

  • 16 oz flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 14 oz buttermilk*

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 425.
  2. Sift dry ingredients together into a large bowl. (Or just measure them out and whisk them rigorously like I always do. I'm one to skip sifting if it doesn't seem especially critical in a recipe.)
  3. Mix in buttermilk until dough is sticky. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead lightly. (Don't overdo it!)
  4. Shape into a flattened round and slash a cross on top. (This helps it cook evenly. Plus, it's pretty.)
  5. Place in parchment lined dutch oven and baked for 30min covered. Remove top and bake for 15min more. (If you don't have a dutch oven, use two large cast iron skillets, one placed over the other or a deep baking dish/pan with another baking sheet/pan placed on top.)
  6. Bread is done when nicely browned and sounds hollow when the bottom is tapped. Enjoy!

Recipe adapted from The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread.

"muffin" soda bread

Yield: One 10inch skillet loaf

Ingredients:

  • 6 tbs sweet butter
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tbs baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 3/4 granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 cup currants (I substituted raisins)
  • 1 3/4 cup buttermilk*
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 tbs caraway seeds (optional)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350.
  2. Smear 2 tbs butter all over the bottom and sides of a 10inch cast iron skillet. Melt 2 tbs of butter and set aside.
  3. Sift dry ingredients together (or just whisk them, if you're like me!). Add currants and caraway seeds (if using) to dry ingredients and mix well. 
  4. Whisk together wet ingredients. Add to dry ingredients and mix until just blended. Don't over-mix!
  5. Scrape batter into prepared skillet and smooth the top. Dot the top of the batter with the remaining 2 tbs of butter.
  6. Bake until golden brown, about 60 minutes. Cool slightly, then remove from skillet. Cut into wedges, and enjoy!

Recipe adapted from The Silver Palate Cookbook.

Soda bread

Yield: One round loaf

Ingredients:

  • 4 - 4 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 tbs sugar
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 4 tbs butter
  • 1 cup currants or raisins
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 3/4 cup buttermilk*
  • 1 tbs caraway seeds (Optional. Not in the recipe, but I've always added them!)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 425.
  2. Mix 4 cups of four and dry ingredients together in a large bowl. 
  3. Add butter and rub into the flour mixture with your fingers until pea-sized pieces are throughout.
  4. Add raisins and caraway seeds (if using) to the flour mixture and mix well.
  5. Make a well in the dry ingredients and add buttermilk and egg. Stir until flour is absorbed and a stiff dough forms. Don't over-mix!
  6. Turn out dough onto a floured surfaced and knead gently. Don't over-knead! Shape into a flattened round, slash with an X, and place in dutch oven (or two cast iron skillets on top of each other, or a deep baking pan with another on top).
  7. Bake covered for 30min. Remove top, then bake for 15min more. 
  8. Bread is done when golden brown and sounds hollow when the bottom is thumped. Enjoy!

Recipe adapted from Simply Recipes.

Notes:

  • Somehow I never noticed until baking these three recipes that every recipe for soda bread calls for buttermilk. Where I've always used the usual substitutes (milk + lemon juice/vinegar, yogurt, thinned yogurt, etc...) without thinking twice, this article got me into a serious quandary. Unfortunately, I didn't have any on hand and wasn't able to run out to the store, so had to make do whether I liked it or not! Knowing now that buttermilk freezes well, I'll be much less hesitant to buy it in the future. But, as the soda breads all turned out delicious without the downsides being blatantly obvious (and I've never noticed ill effects in the past), I'm going to keep using substitutes as needed. Another instance of where it is good to try to cook and bake well, but absolute perfection shouldn't be the goal at the expense of a happy, reasonable home. Especially when meals that technically fall short of the ideal are nonetheless delicious, satisfying, and made with love.