Brown Bread – Whole Wheat Irish Soda Bread
Edited to add: For those familiar with Inhabited Kitchen, obviously I wrote this before I knew that gluten was a problem for me. It’s a terrific recipe, so I’m glad I got it onto the blog!
In Ireland, brown bread is just as traditional as the white flour soda bread (occasionally made with raisins or currants) Americans are more accustomed to. I am told that the finest restaurants serve thin slices of it with smoked salmon. People at home are more likely to serve it with butter for breakfast or tea. It’s a good, easy, basic whole grain bread. I like it because it doesn’t require kneading or rising – it’s a quick bread that you mix and pop in the oven. (Do then let it cool completely before cutting.)
Soda bread, like baking powder biscuits or scones, is a chemically leavened bread. These became popular in the 19th century, especially in areas with a soft, lower gluten wheat. A combination of the alkaline baking soda and some form of acid creates carbon dioxide, which makes the bread rise. In baking powders, the manufacturer mixes the soda with an acid ingredient such as cream of tartar, so you have everything together in the one powder, and the reaction is started when moisture hits it. In a soda bread, though, the acid is provided by cultured buttermilk, or sometimes a sour milk.
Properly, a soda bread – white or brown – had no baking powder, though I often see American recipes calling for it. The basic recipe, which I am giving here, is nothing but flour, salt, soda, and buttermilk. Fancier versions may add some butter for richness, and currants (more often raisins in the US) but nothing else. and they are relatively unusual in Ireland.
The bread is sometimes called cake, or a cake of bread. My mother told me that, when her father was a boy, some of the older Irish ladies in their town in New Jersey would offer him “a slice of cake” when he delivered milk from the family farm. He took it, of course – catch a teenage farm boy turning down food, and besides, it was only polite – but thought it was a pretty poor excuse for cake… and was much relieved, as an adult, to realize that it was bread all along. (It was very good, as bread went!)
I mostly make the plain version, and I always make the wholemeal – whole wheat – version. I prefer whole grains anyhow, and I really like the flavor of this. With no added fat it doesn’t keep long, but I’ve never found that to be a problem, somehow.
Once the buttermilk hits the soda, you want to get it in the oven quickly, as the reaction has started, so preheat your oven first, to 425º and grease a baking sheet.
Measuring flour is always an issue. I generally weigh it for bread baking, now, as that’s more reliable – measuring with a cup can get very different amounts, depending on how you fill the cup. I made this bread long before I weighed flour, though, so I’m passing on the cup measurement – and a reasonably accurate way to measure, called “Scoop and sweep.” You stir the flour in the canister, so it is loose, use the measuring cup to scoop it up, and then something flat – a knife, a bench knife or scraper such as I use here, anything level – to sweep the extra flour off the top. This is a standard way of measuring flour for baking.
Measure the flour into a large bowl, then add salt and soda, and mix them thoroughly. Make a well in the center of the flour, and pour the buttermilk into it, then gradually stir the flour in from the sides. This makes it easier to blend the flour into the liquid more smoothly.
The exact amount of buttermilk will vary a bit, depending on how much liquid your flour picks up (which in turn depends on how much moisture it has already absorbed from the air. This is always a factor in breadmaking.) Start with the lower amount, and stir well, incorporating all the flour. If, after a while, you still have a lot of loose flour that isn’t blending in, add more buttermilk, just a little at a time. A little extra flour – a tablespoon or so – is all right, as it will come together in the next step, but there shouldn’t be a quarter of a cup or so left over.
Once you have a rough dough – also sometimes called a shaggy dough, and you can see in the picture why these names are used – start mixing and kneading lightly with your hand. This is not the thorough kneading you give a yeast bread – you are just pressing the dough together to make a smooth ball. I usually do it right in the bowl, with just one hand. Once you have a moderately smooth ball (again, you’re not looking for the smooth resilient dough of a yeast bread) turn it out.
Press the ball gently into a flat disc, about an inch and a half high. Not too thick, it will rise, and you want it to cook through. Then slash a cross in it, about halfway through, dividing it in quarters. Again, this helps the center cook evenly, and also makes it easier to cut or break the bread in quarters (traditionally called farls) for eating out of hand, or slicing.
Bake it at 425º for half an hour, then lower the heat to 350º for another 10-15 minutes. Check the center slashes – if they still look moist, it needs a little more time. Remove the bread from the oven when done,. and let cool completely – it will continue cooking a little during this time. Unlike, say, biscuits, this is best served cool. If the crust is too hard, wrap in a damp tea towel the last hour or so. (I skip that step – I like the crunch – but you can see the shower of crumbs I got!)
Cut the loaf along the slashes, then slice the farls. Serve with plenty of good butter – and perhaps cheese (or Irish smoked salmon, if you’re being fancy!) The next morning (if any is still left…) I like to toast the slices for breakfast.
Brown Bread – Whole Wheat Irish Soda Bread
- 4 c whole wheat flour
- 1 t salt
- 1 t baking soda
- 1 3/4 - 2 c cultured buttermilk
- Preheat oven to 425.
- Mix dry ingredients in a bowl.
- Make a well in the center of the flour mixture. Pour 1 3/4 cups of buttermilk into the well. Stir the flour gradually in, until you have a shaggy dough. Add up to 1/4 cup more buttermilk, if you need it.
- Use your hand to gently knead the dough into a ball.
- Turn the ball out onto a greased baking sheet. Press it gently into a disc, 1 1/2 inches thick. Slash a cross into the disc, about 3/4 of an inch deep.
- Bake at 425 for 30 minutes. Turn oven heat down to 350, bake for another 15 minutes.
- Let cool completely before slicing.