Bread products have been baked since the dawn of man. Each country seems to have created their own loaf that have become synonymous with their origin. In Ireland, they have created their own soda bread. People rarely even say just "soda bread"; they usually say "Irish soda bread". Sure, you have no problem noshing on the popular pastry while downing a Guinness, but do you actually know what Irish soda bread is?
Irish Soda Bread is not the only version of soda bread but it is the most popular because, quite simply, it's been around for so long. All soda breads use sodium bicarbonate (or to us non-lab rats), baking soda instead of yeast as their leavening agent. This distinction allows the bread to be prepared quickly and less methodically than yeast breads, whose temperature must be tightly monitored to yield a decent loaf.
The climate in Ireland is damp and mild. Because of this, Irish farmers were only able to grow soft wheat which is lower in gluten. The harder winter wheat, which is the common wheat grown in America's "bread basket" states, produces the all-purpose flour required in most bread recipes. Because the gluten is scant in the flour produced from soft wheat, yeast is ineffective in making the dough rise.
Irish peasants discovered that mixing buttermilk, salt, baking soda, and the soft wheat flour makes for a good dough. The buttermilk contains lactic acid. When combined with baking soda, the ingredients create carbon dioxide which forms tiny bubbles in the dough that are distinctive to soda breads.
Because the original Irish soda bread recipe used their native wheat, which the average home across the pond doesn't have on hand, doesn't mean you can't make your own loaf at home. It will be more glutenous than what the peasants baked but still considered a soda bread because no yeast is being utilized.
Because Irish Soda Bread is a totally different type of bread than the more pervasive yeast-based breads, it comes to no surprise that they are served differently.
Irish Soda Bread has a bit of sweetness to it. Because of this, it can be treated like a pastry and there's no better way to eat a pastry than as soon as it comes out of the oven with butter. The butter melts into the cake-like loaf adding a rich moistness that makes it stand alone. It's as delectable as it is simple.
For those who prefer even more sweetness, slap a gooey dollop of jam or marmalade onto a thick slice of warm bread. The fruity bits in jams and marmalades give the bread extra textural dimensions as opposed to generic jellies. You can't really go wrong with what flavor you choose: strawberry, blackberry, orange, etc but the citrus flavors pair well with the hearty bread because they give it a nice sharpness to the dense loaf.
Nothing says autumn more than cooking a big vat of a soup or stew. Whether you are making a traditional Irish Lamb Stew or a thick Potato Leek Soup, a few slices of Irish Soda Bread to dip completes the meal. The bread will soak up the juices of the broth and, hopefully, a few vegetables along the way. The salty liquid absorbed by the faintly sweet bread is the best of both worlds.
The typical Irish Soda Bread recipe includes raisins which give it a bit of a sweetness and chewiness for taste and added fiber for nutrition. Despite the long history of soda bread, there are several variations that are both timeless and modern. And easy to make!
Irish peasants certainly wouldn't have had access to these citrus fruits but they pair surprisingly well.
Scones are mainly served at breakfast. This mini soda bread loaves can be perfectly shaped using a pastry cutter or dropped by hand onto the baking sheet. They are also sweeter than their loaf cousins because either granulated sugar is sprinkled on top or a glaze made from confectioners sugar is drizzled.
The tartness of the dried cherries juxtaposed with the sweet golden raisins enveloped in the thick bread is like a party in your mouth. The merlot color of the cherries and the deep yellow-orange of these raisins tempt your palate through your eyes.
So now you know the history of Irish Soda Bread and how to make and serve it in a multitude of ways, grab your baking soda out of the fridge, get to mixing, and fill your home with the aroma that's been emitting from hearths for centuries.