I’m just blown away by soda bread! I’ve been making it for several months now, and it’s hard to find a reason to go back to yeast-leavened bread other than for a bit of variety. Variety is great, but so is having a quick, reliable recipe for everyday use. Soda bread is now our household staple, baked about once a week. It’s delicious, cheap, easy and only takes about ten minutes to prepare – three quarters of an hour from start to finish, including the washing up!
I’m talking about the traditional style of soda bread, which is plain and simple, although you can add various other ingredients if you like: nuts, seeds, fruit, oils, etc.. Traditional soda bread has just four ingredients: flour, salt, sodium bicarbonate and buttermilk. And it doesn’t even need the buttermilk, just something acidic. If you’d like to make your own bread, but could never be bothered with all the kneeding and waiting for the dough to rise, read on – soda bread doesn’t, er, need any of that.
How to Make Soda Bread
The basic recipe I use is this (alternative ingredients and discussion follow):
About 4 – 4 1/2 cups of plain flour (perhaps mixed with other types)
About 500 ml buttermilk, soured milk, yoghurt or combination thereof (or just water and lemon juice)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
Preheat the oven to about 400F/200C/Gas mark 6 (or lower). Do this as you start putting the ingredients together, or earlier if your oven takes a while to heat up. Some suggest using warm buttermilk/sour milk/yoghurt, so you could take it out the fridge and warm it, although I honestly don’t think it makes much difference.
Sieve the flour, salt and bicarb into a large bowl and mix with your fingers or a spoon. I sift the flour, partly because it’s useful to prepare your baking tray by very lightly sprinkling flour over it. Keep a little flour ready also for putting on your hands to shape the dough, and finally for sprinkling on the loaf to bake.
Flour the work surface or a heavy bread board to shape the loaf on. Another handy preparation is to oiling your spoon and a large kitchen knife or metal spatula, and also perhaps your hands, before adding the liquids.
Now add about 3/4 of the liquid ingredient and mix it. If it’s dry, it’ll be hard to mix, and you should add more liquid until you get a good dough. The consistency is fairly critical for easy handling, I think, but experiment and see what suits you. If it gets too wet, just add some more flour.
Probably the only difficult part of making soda bread is getting the dough out of the bowl, shaped and on the baking tray. Practice makes perfect – overworking it tends to make it stickier and runnier. And if it’s too wet it tends to flatten too much on the tray.
You can tip the bowl upside down and flop the dough onto your floured bench or board, then dust it with a little flour and shape it, turning it and patting it into a round. You then transfer it to the floured tray, You can also put seeds on the bench with the flour to roll the dough in.
The tradition in Ireland is to put a cross in the top with your knife or spatula (which is why it’s good to oil it, so it doesn’t stick) – cut it quite deeply. They say this is to let the fairies out, (but it’s probably better not to put fairies in in the first place). Anyway, it helps it cook evenly, makes a lovely shape and provides a way to break it into quarters. Dust it lightly with flour and put it in the oven.
Some say to bake it for ten minutes at that relatively high temperature to make a good crust, and then turn the oven down a couple of gas marks, but I’ve had good results doing it for the whole time at a lower temperature. Experiment – that’s the best advice. Timing, again, is a matter of experience, but somewhere in the region of 30 to 40 minutes will probably do it. The usual test for bread is to take it out, tip it upside down and tap the bottom. If it sounds hollow, it’s done; if not, pop it back in for a while longer (upside down will help).
I find you can also tap the top and get some idea how well it’s done, or just gauge it from the colour of the crust…or the quantity of drool dribbling down your chin – the smell is wonderful.
Cool it on a wire rack and then cut or break it. It has a slightly sour flavour, which may be an aquired taste for some, but it soon becomes how bread should taste. I’d say it’s best with sweet or acidic accompaniments, but good with savoury too. It’s delicious with lemon curd, or peanut butter, and makes superb buttered toast.
Chemistry Lesson and Alternative Ingredients
I think it’s best to get some idea of the principles and simple chemistry going on when you cook, so here’s a bit on soda bread chemistry. “Normal” bread, most bread, is made with yeast. The yeast feeds on sugars in the dough mixture and gives off carbon dioxide gas, which makes lots of tiny bubbles in the dough, leavening it (making it rise). Soda bread makes CO2 by the chemical reaction between sodium bicarbonate (an alkali) and buttermilk (an acid). Hence, with soda bread there is no need to “prove” your dough, waiting around for hours while it breathes out CO2 in a warm place, and there’s almost no need to kneed it either. You just mix the ingredients and whack it in the oven.
Yeast, being a living organism, is also sensitive to changes in dough constitution – for instance, salt tends to kill it. Then, once it’s baking and reaches a moderate temperature, the yeast is killed (hence all the waiting around proving it first), whereas soda bread produces CO2 at higher temperatures.
It’s also probably a bit better for you than yeast-leavened bread, and certainly a boon for people who are sensitive to gluten and/or yeast. Bread flour has a lot of gluten in it, which helps yeast dough to develop, but soda bread is better with plain flour, and too much gluten makes it heavy. On the other hand, I’ve made it with about 1/4 strong bread flour, and I think it gives the bread a little more depth of flavour and elasticity. I’ve also made it with part wholewheat flour for the inestimable health benefits of the whole grain, and that works fine too. You can put other grains in for their added nutritional value too, like oats. Processed white flour really isn’t the healthiest thing on the planet.
No Buttermilk? Useor Yoghurt
Buttermilk isn’t usually on my shopping list. I don’t think I’ve ever bought it before. It is a by-product of the butter-making process, and for making soda bread it has the properties of being acidic and having milk proteins in it. I don’t know whether milk proteins are of any importance other than improving the flavour or nutrition, and I’ve tried it without any milk at all and hardly noticed a difference, but it then needs something acidic like lemon juice to react with the bicarb.
You can also use yoghurt instead of buttermilk (thinning it with water if it’s a thick “Greek style” one). You can simply add a tablespoon or two of lemon juice or refined vinegar to two cups of fresh milk, stir it, and (supposedly) wait for ten minutes for it to turn into soured milk (it begins to curdle). I’ve tried each of the above methods with success, and I’m not even sure you need to wait for the milk to sour.
No Milk or Yoghurt? Use Dried Milk
I didn’t have much milk left the other day when I wanted to bake. I threw caution to the wind and used powdered skimmed milk, combining this with the dry ingredients first and then adding water with lemon juice in it. It’s just as good.
No Plain Flour? Use Self-Raising
But still use baking soda and the acidic ingredient – it doesn’t seem to give enough raising otherwise. Strong bread flour isn’t very good on its own, though, unless you like quite dense bread.
I have read that there’s a limited time that the chemical reaction takes place, so you have to get it in the oven quickly. However, I have delayed baking for many hours and it seemed to work fine. This is in keeping with another website, which said it doesn’t react at room temperatures. I might have to experiment more, and maybe try freezing some dough for later use, perhaps for pizza bases.
One minor downside to this method is that the resulting loaf doesn’t give very even-sized slices, so it’s not quite as good for popping in the toaster or making rounds of sarnies, so my next experiment is to bake it in a loaf tin. But the rustic shape breaks into quarters nicely at the cuts, great to tear apart and dip in your soup.
A Real Treat
I made this last time with lightly roasted sesame and poppy seeds (roasted on the baking tray while the oven heated up), some mixed in and some coating the crust by putting them on my shaping board with the flour. It’s amazing. 🙂
Low Calorie Diet?
I calculated that this loaf is only about 400 calories in total (made with a little dried skimmed milk). Most slices of bought bread are round the 80-100 calorie mark. The same amount of soda bread would probably be about 50 calories.