The Soda Bread I Learned From My Irish Mom's Home Ec Textbook
When at-home genetic testing kits started to be a big thing, my parents decided to go ahead and send in their little saliva samples to get a more robust picture of our heritage. When my Mom's came back, she texted the family announcing that she was more than 90 percent Irish.
This was surprising not at all. My mom grew up in Athlone, in the Midlands of Ireland, and, but for a few folks venturing over to England now and again, my understanding is that side of the family is Irish all the way down. My mom's side of the family is scattered around the Dublin suburbs, where I puttered around for most of my childhood summers.
It is for this reason that St. Patrick's Day confused me deeply growing up in Alabama. In Ireland, at least until fairly recently, it is largely a minor religious holiday—my Auntie Eilish and Uncle John send me a Catholic prayer card every year marking the occasion. In the United States, it is a day for green beer and green hats, parades of revelers chucking potatoes and cabbages, and, for some reason, pinching. It wasn't until later in my life that I understood the distinction: St. Patrick's Day is an Irish-American holiday much more than an Irish holiday.
Thanks to various historical tragedies that spurred waves of immigration, there are far, far more Irish-Americans than there are Irish people in Ireland. Per the most recent Census, roughly 32 million Americans identify as being of Irish descent, close to 10 percent of the entire population. There are, by the United Nation's population figures, currently about 4.9 million people in all of the Republic of Ireland. What that means, on a practical level, is that as with so many immigrants, Irish-Americans have their own distinctive cuisine that integrates elements from both Irish cuisine and the nebulous, ever-shifting blob that is American cuisine. Irish-American cuisine doesn't map perfectly on Irish cuisine or vice versa, but there are overlaps. One of those is soda bread.
Soda bread, depending on who you're talking to, can either be a craggy wholemeal loaf or a lighter, sweeter currant-studded one, or something in between. In Ireland, soda bread is often separated into two types, brown and white. Brown tends to lean towards the denser side of the spectrum, basically equivalent to a whole-wheat or multigrain bread, and white to the lighter side, a loaf made with all-purpose flour. I learned to make soda bread from my Granny O'Donoghue, and from my dad, who, though not Irish by birth, has taken up the mantle of family baker. The recipe I use at home is one I adapted from All in the Cooking, the domestic science book that my mom used in school, a staple of Irish education from its publication in 1946 to well into the 1970s. But my soda bread might not be your soda bread, because one person's experience of a whole country and its traditions and diaspora is bound to be incomplete. That's OK. There's room for all soda breads here.
Basic soda bread just requires flour, salt, baking soda, buttermilk, and a hot oven. My Irish-American friends tend to make a sweeter version than the one that I grew up with, which isn't wrong, it's just a different plan of attack. This one requires no sugar at all, and no raisins either, but I'm not against it if you feel like throwing in a handful. After much tweaking, I found that the ratio of baking soda is crucial—keeping it to half a teaspoon prevents the whole loaf from acquiring an overwhelmingly bitter flavor, but its plenty to give the loaf a good rise. Depending on which flour you use and various temperature and humidity conditions of your kitchen, you may need more or less buttermilk to bring the mixture together into a shaggy dough. If you don't have buttermilk (or buttermilk powder) around, sour milk, thinned-out yogurt, or kefir work too, as I've found at various points. The recipe works with any all-purpose flour, but if you love soda bread, it's worth seeking out Irish flour like Odlum's, a coarse-ground wheat flour that makes the loaf both densier and slightly nuttier tasting. (Odlum's is such a core part of the Irish pantry that when my Auntie Eilish flies over to the United States, she often brings us a bag as a treat, alongside a variety of excellent Irish chocolate. When we fly to visit her in County Kildare, we bring premade cookie dough.) King Arthur Baking Company makes an excellent Irish-style flour that works equally well here.
Soda bread can be tricky to get the hang of, but remember that it exists as a spectrum, from more biscuit-like to more of a dense, whole wheat bread. Handling the dough as little as possible helps make a loaf that's not overly tough. All you need to do is get the dough mixed enough that no raw flour or streaks of buttermilk are showing, and pat it into a vaguely circular loaf. Don't be shy about cutting the cross at least a quarter-inch deep—"letting the faeries out" as the Irish proverb goes. The most crucial thing to remember is a slathering of nice Irish butter—like Kerrygold—on the bread at the end, or, if you're very lucky, fresh jam from your auntie's garden.