Ah, Irish soda bread! Comparable only to cornbread in its many variations and allegiances, any Irish soda bread recipe is guaranteed to stir up a little controversy. I present this one for the simple reason that it's my favorite and you can adjust it any which way to suit your needs. Want it a little sweet? Add some sugar. Think it can't be Irish soda bread without currants and caraway? Have at it!
What Is Irish Soda Bread?
Most people agree on three Irish soda bread ingredients: flour, baking soda, and some kind of soured milk, usually buttermilk. But from there, it can vary widely and often with much debate. Some add sugar, and some do not. Some keep it all white flour, some add a little whole-wheat or rye flour, and some make it a 100 percent whole-grain bread. Some add a fat such as butter, but some people melt it and some like to cut it in cold. Salt, too, is controversial, as well as the addition of an egg or two. And we haven't even begun to talk about caraway, raisins, or orange peel!
What You Need to Know About Baking Irish Soda Bread
In choosing an Irish soda bread recipe, your first decision will be sweet or savory. The addition of sugar is technically not traditional, but it's still good. I do not include sugar in my main recipe, but suggest an amount in the optional ingredients, as I will sometimes add sugar to my Irish soda bread if I know I will be serving it with jam or marmalade.
My recipe also doesn't contain eggs, which to me promotes a cake-like texture, especially if you're also adding sugar. I like to cut in some cold butter to help keep the texture light and flakey. And I also like to add a little whole-wheat flour for taste and texture.
Many people like to add dried fruit to their soda bread, such as raisins or currants, and I have no problem with that. I also don't mind dried herbs or spices such as caraway or dill. A little grated orange or lemon peel is nice, too. I've included these in the list of optional ingredients since they can swing the bread in a particular direction.
I like to bake my soda bread in a cast iron skillet, as it promotes a nice crust, but you can certainly use a flat baking sheet. Be sure to score an X into the dough and make it fairly deep — about 1/2- to 3/4-inch. One of the challenges of a soda bread is being sure that the center is done, and the X helps the heat to penetrate the bread. It also creates extra surface area for the crisp, crackling crust.
How To Make Irish Soda Bread
What You Need
Oil, for coating the skillet or baking sheet
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons cold buttermilk
2 to 4 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon caraway seeds, fennel seeds, or dried dill
1 tablespoon freshly grated orange or lemon zest
1/2 to 3/4 cup currants, raisins, or golden raisins, plumped in water and drained
Large cast iron skillet or baking sheet
Measuring cups and spoons
Wooden spoon or rubber spatula
Wire cooling rack
- Heat the oven and chill the butter: Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven, remove any racks above the middle rack, and heat to 400°F. Lightly coat a large cast iron skillet or baking sheet with oil; set aside. (Alternatively, line a baking sheet with parchment paper.) Cut the butter into small cubes, place on a plate, and freeze for 5 minutes. Do not freeze the butter solid or you will have a hard time working it into the flour.
- Mix the dry ingredients: Meanwhile, place the all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar if using in a large bowl and whisk to combine.
- Cut in the butter: Add the chilled butter cubes and, using your fingers, work the butter into the flour by quickly pinching and rubbing the butter and flour together. (Alternatively, cut the butter in with a pastry cutter or 2 table knives.) The butter should be fully worked in, without any large chunks left.
- Add the buttermilk and shape: Add 2 cups of the buttermilk and any additions. Stir with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula to combine. At a certain point, it may be easier to use your hands to gather the dough into a rough, shaggy mass. Shape and press it into a thick, slightly flattened ball 7 to 8 inches in diameter.
- Score and brush with buttermilk: Place the dough in the oiled skillet or on the baking sheet. Using a sharp knife, score a large X about 1/2-inch deep across the dough, going all the way from end to end. Brush with the remaining 2 tablespoons buttermilk.
- Bake: Bake for 25 minutes. Check the bread: If it is getting too brown, tent with a piece of aluminum foil. Continue baking 20 to 30 minutes more. The bread is ready when the center of the X has lost the wet, shiny look of raw dough. You can also insert a cake tester or skewer — it should come out clean. A light thump on the bottom of the loaf should sound hollow.
- Cool on a rack: Transfer the bread to a wire rack and let cool 10 minutes before serving. Don't cut the bread right away or it might turn gummy in the center. Slather lavishly with salted butter — Irish, of course — and enjoy!
- Storage: Leftover bread can be cooled completely, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, and stored at room temperature for up to 3 days.