The Irish did not actually invent soda bread, but they are historically associated with it. Irish soda bread is also one of the key ingredients in a full Irish breakfast and in Ireland, soda bread has become cultural tradition. There is even an incredibly enthusiastic Society For The Preservation Of Irish Soda Bread dedicated to the tradition, something we at the English Breakfast Society can support.
It is because of poverty that we first began to associate soda bread with the Irish, soda bread is one of the easiest kinds of bread you can make and in poor Irish households, soda bread was a cost effective staple of the dining table. Soda bread was very easy to make when compared with making 'normal' bread, there was no need to knead the dough and soda bread can be made with almost any kind of flour. To make soda bread even easier, you also didn't need an oven to make it.
Legend has it that the traditional reason for cutting a cross into the top of the bread, was to 'let the devil out' whilst it was baking, although it did also allow the heat to penetrate the thickest part of the bread, which assisted when cooking.
In 1850, an Irish Medical Journal (Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science) published an article on the use of soda in the preparation of bread, around the time of the great potato crop failures that contributed towards the Great Irish Famine.
During the failure of the potato crop, a large quantity of bicarbonate of soda was employed by the poorer classes in the preparation of bread.
The journal noted that during the mid 1800's, the Irish were making so much soda bread that bicarbonate of soda almost doubled in price, not only was soda bread cheap, it was also delicious when freshly baked and hot from the oven.
If you only had access to very poor quality wheat, you would add bicarbonate of soda to the mix in order to improve the texture and taste of the bread, it also made the bread less likely to break up and was considered to be just as wholesome as 'normal' bread, although these days most Irish soda bread is made with high quality wheat (even tastier).
By the late 1800's soda bread became hugely popular in Ireland, a popular journalist (Newry Telegraph) wrote a glowing article about the benefits of eating Irish soda bread, he wrote "there is no bread to be had equal to it for invigorating the body, promoting digestion, strengthening the stomach, and improving the state of the bowels."
The most important ingredient of Irish soda bread is bicarbonate of soda, which is used as a yeast substitute. Traditionally in times of poverty when yeast was hard to come by, yeast was substituted with soda, because soda is just as good a leavening agent as yeast and causes a foaming action in the bread, which lightens and softens it when baked.
A traditional ingredient of Irish soda bread was sour milk, something that was easily bought from the local dairy, who would usually throw the sour milk away, but could now make some money from what was previously a wasted product.
Buttermilk is used instead of sour milk these days, buttermilk is the leftover liquid from butter making, although strangely, most of the buttermilk that you will find in supermarkets these days is usually artificially soured milk.
The sour milk chemically reacts with the bicarbonate of soda, which starts the raising process when baking. Its easy to make your own sour milk, just add one tablespoon of lemon juice to two cups of milk and wait 15 minutes.
Being that Irish soda bread is one of the easiest kinds of bread to make, recipes are usually pretty straight forward. The most simple one we have seen was first published in 1824, in an article called 'the Virgina housewife' by Mary Randolph.
She advised that you dissolve half a pound of sugar into a pint of milk; add a teaspoon of soda, pour it on two pounds of flour and then melt half a pound of butter into the mix. Then you pour it into a shallow tin and bake it quickly the oven.
If you need some actual Irish soda bread recipes, we recommend that you check out this BBC Good Food Guide recipe for making Irish soda bread, or check out this article on ten ways to make Irish soda bread with links to even more recipes.
If you are interested in history, heritage and recipes of the traditional English breakfast, check out our official English Breakfast Handbook, lovingly produced by the English Breakfast Society.