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! 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, some not. Some keep it all white flour, some add a little whole wheat or rye, and some make it a 100% 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!
In choosing an Irish soda bread recipe, your first decision will be sweet or savory. The addition of sugar is technically not traditional, but American palates especially seem to like it. 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
A little oil for your skillet or baking sheet
4 tablespoon cold 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 buttermilk, plus about 2 tablespoons for brushing the loaf
2-4 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon caraway, fennel or dill
1 tablespoon freshly grated orange or lemon rind
1/2 - 3/4 cup currants, raisins, or golden raisins, plumped in water and drained
Cast-iron skillet or baking sheet
Measuring cups and spoons
Wooden spoon or spatuala
Wire cooking rack
1. Prep the ingredients. Preheat oven to 400°F. Lightly oil the frying pan or baking sheet (you can also use parchment paper). Cut the butter into small cubes and place on a plate in the freezer to chill. Do not freeze the butter solid or you will have a hard time working it into the flour.
2. Measure and mix the dry ingredients. Measure the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into a mixing bowl. If you are adding sugar, put it in now. Stir with a whisk to combine.
3. Cut in the butter. Add the chilled butter to the bowl with the flour mixture, and using your finger tips, work the butter into the flour by quickly pinching and rubbing the butter and flour together. You can also use a pastry cutter or two knives. The butter should be fully worked in, without any large chunks left.
4. Add the buttermilk plus any extras and form into a ball. Add the buttermilk and any extras such as dried fruit or caraway seeds. Stir with a wooden spoon or spatula to combine. At a certain point, it may seem easier to use your hands to gather the dough into a rough, shaggy mass. Press it into a thick, slightly flattened ball.
5. Score and brush with buttermilk. Place the dough into the oiled skillet. Using a sharp knife, mark a large X into the center of the dough, going all the way from end to end, about 1/2-inch deep. Brush with a little buttermilk.
6. Place in oven and bake. Place in oven. After about 25 minutes, check the bread. If it is getting too brown, tent with a piece of foil. Continue baking, about another 20-30 minutes. You will be able to tell the loaf has finished cooking when the center of the X has lost the wet, shiny look of raw dough. You can also insert a cake tester — it should come out clean. A light thump on the bottom of the loaf should sound hollow.
7. Cool on a rack. Warm soda bread spread with butter is a delicious treat. But don't cut the bread right away or it might turn gummy in the center. Let it rest for about 10 minutes before cutting into slices, or tearing into chunks. Slather lavishly with salted butter - Irish, of course - and enjoy!
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(Images: Dana Velden)