If you’re thinking that now is the time to finally come good on that new year’s resolution to start baking your own bread, this loaf, which can be on the table in little more than an hour, is the one to start with, especially if you’re hoping to enlist the help of young children in making it. Popular throughout Ireland, soda bread’s soft and crumbly crumb is great warm from the oven, but it also makes unbeatable toast.
Prep 10 min
Cook 50 min
Makes 1 loaf
450g coarse wholemeal flour, plus a little extra to dust
50g rolled oats (optional, see step 3)
1 tsp salt
1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tbsp treacle
1 tbsp honey
450ml buttermilk (see step 2)
1 tbsp butter, to finish
1 The clue is in the name
As the name suggests, soda bread relies on bicarbonate of soda, rather than yeast, as a raising agent, which is why it’s so quick to make – it gets to work as soon as it comes into contact with an acid, and the reaction between the two creates bubbles of gas that expand in the heat of the oven, causing your bread to rise.
2 The acid test
This acid traditionally comes in the form of buttermilk, but if you can’t find that (though it is widely available in supermarkets), use the same amount of milk soured with a tablespoon of lemon juice or even vinegar; the effect will be the same, though the flavour will vary, especially with vinegar. You could even use plain yoghurt instead, though in that case I’d recommend thinning it down with a splash of milk or water first.
3 Mix the dry ingredients
Heat the oven to 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6 and put a lightly greased baking tray in there to heat up. Put the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl and stir to combine. If you don’t have oats, replace them with 50g flour; and if you want to use white flour instead, or a combination, feel free (see step 8).
4 Add the buttermilk and sweeteners
Stir the treacle and honey into the buttermilk until well mixed (it will probably stick to the bottom of the jug at first, so make sure you incorporate those bits, too), then make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients.
Pour the buttermilk mixture into the well and use your hands to stir it into the flour. Mix until you have a soft, sticky dough.
5 Mould the loaf
Lightly flour a work surface, then tip out the dough and shape it into a rough round (alternatively, you could use a greased loaf tin, if you prefer). Take the hot baking tray out of the oven, put the loaf on it, then use a sharp knife to cut a deep cross (see step 9) in the top to speed up the baking time.
6 Bake the loaf
Put the tray in the oven and bake for between 50 minutes to an hour, keeping an eye on it towards the end of the cooking time: it’s done when the crust is hard and golden, and the bread sounds fairly hollow when tapped on the base. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small pan or in the microwave.
7 Brush with melted butter
Take the bread out of the oven and immediately brush with the melted butter.
Leave to cool a little (soda bread is pretty indigestible while it’s still hot), then cut into slices and tuck in, preferably with copious amounts of butter. Note that this bread doesn’t keep as well as yeasted bread, though it is very good toasted.
If you’re using another type of flour, you may need to reduce the amount of liquid, because wholemeal flour absorbs more than white flour; and if you find the loaf is hard to shape, simply add a little more flour to the dough mix. Ring the changes by adding dried fruit, olives, caramelised onions, crumbled cheese, seeds or chopped woody herbs such as rosemary.
9 The sign of the cross
As well as helping it bake faster, the cross cut into the top of the loaf is also said to bless it against evil forces, or to let out the devil, depending on who you listen to. I was taught to prick each corner, too, to let the fairies out, though whether or not you choose to do so probably depends on your attitude to eating fairies.