I was surprised to read recently that Soda Bread is considered to have migrated from the US, based on a notion that the early settlers used potash to improve their baking. Amelia Simmons (1796) uses potash in some of her gingerbread recipes and Mary Randolph includes a recipe for Soda Cake in her 1824 book The Virginia Housewife.
These notwithstanding, the earliest Soda Bread recipe that I have been able to find in print is a letter published in the Newry Telegraph, dated September 2nd 1836. The correspondant, who signs him/herself “M.D.” gives the following recipe:
Having tried a fair few soda bread recipes over the years, I was struck by how minimalistic this recipe is – literally four ingredients: flour, salt, baking soda, buttermilk. Over the years, modern recipes have managed to sneak in a myriad of embellishments – white flour, sugar, honey, egg, butter, cream of tartar…. but this, this appears to be soda bread in its earliest and purest form. I had to try it. And I was not disappointed.
I followed MD’s recipe as written as closely as possible, and the first batch was fine, but not, in my opinion, the best it could be. The mixing of the soda in water was, for the time, an acceptable way to remove lumps, but it meant for an uneven distribution of soda throughout the flour, which resulted in blotches of yellow crumb amongst the wholemeal. Sieving the soda into the flour with the salt was a much better approach. In addition, buttermilk is not as freely available nowadays as it once was, so my solution was to mix equal quantities of whole milk and low-fat, plain yogurt. Lastly, as the recipe stated that the buttermilk should be very sour (which is what reacts with the soda to give the rise), I stirred in two teaspoons of vinegar.
Halving the batch made two mini loaves of dimensions 14cm x 8cm, which took, rather surprisingly, almost an hour to bake. If you wish to make the full batch, or bake in larger tins, you will need to increase the baking time accordingly.
The result is delicious. The crust bakes to a browned, knobbly crispness and the crumb inside is close-textured, but not claggy. Just warm from the oven and lightly spread with, as MD suggests, some fresh, salted butter, it is delicious with no further adornment. If, like me, you have occasionally read accounts of 19th century afternoon teas where guests are served ‘brown bread and butter’ and been rather puzzled at the plainness of the fare, having tasted this bread with butter, it all makes sense now.
If you’re a fan of modern soda bread recipes, this might not be to your tastes, but I would urge you to try it just once to enjoy the simple pleasure of this diamond in the rough, craggy crust.
These litte loaves will almost double their size during baking, but only if you get them into the oven promptly. The soda will start reacting as soon as the liquids are added, so be sure the oven is at temperature before mixing wet and dry together.
340g stoneground wholemeal flour
1 level teaspoon of salt
1 level teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
150ml whole milk
150ml low-fat, plain yogurt
2tsp white wine vinegar
a little milk (maybe)
- Preheat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
- Grease and line two mini loaf tins (14cm x 8cm) with baking parchment. Grease the parchment.
- Sieve the flour, salt and soda together twice (to spread the soda evenly).
- Mix the milk, yogurt and vinegar until smooth.
- When the oven is hot, add the liquids to the flour mixture and mix into a soft dough. You may need a little extra milk.
- Put half of the dough into each prepared loaf tin and smooth over.
- Using a sharp knife, cut a deep slit down the centre of each loaf.
- Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes.
- Turn the tins around and bake for another 15 minutes.
- Remove the loaves from the tins and place them back in the oven on a rack to crisp up the crust – a final 5-10 minutes.
- Set to cool on a wire rack.
- Enjoy just warm on the day of baking, or toast the following day for breakfast.