Bread baking can be a frightening, somewhat overwhelming endeavor. What may begin as an image of a perfectly risen loaf of bread, golden brown and fresh from the oven, can quickly turn into hours spent waiting for the perfect rise, a kitchen covered in flour and a loaf that just doesn’t live up to your high expectations. Unfortunately for some, the act of combining flour, yeast, sugar and salt is just too scary. This is the moment Irish soda bread walks into your life.
Traditionally, Irish soda bread was made with the most basic of ingredients: flour (usually whole wheat), buttermilk (the by-product of making butter), baking soda and salt. It was originally considered a “poor man’s” bread, as white flour was expensive and was therefore reserved for special occasions. Like many recipes, Irish soda bread has evolved over the years to include anything from eggs and sugar to raisins and caraway seeds.
Irish soda bread is incredibly easy to make, but must be handled with great care and a gentle hand. It’s a rustic, dense and hearty bread; the only leavening being the reaction between the buttermilk and baking soda. Too much kneading can make for a tough dough. It is important to knead just enough to bring it together and then form it into a round loaf. Irish soda bread is also best eaten the day it is baked – straight from the oven with a generous spread of salted butter or fruit jam and a hot cup of tea or coffee.
This St. Patrick’s Day, do yourself a favor and bake one of the easiest loaves of bread you’ll ever make, and tell yourself, “Yes, I can bake bread!”
Makes one loaf.
Preheat oven to 425°F. Adjust rack to middle position. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour and baking soda. Tip: Sifting the flour and baking soda creates air, which results in a lighter finished loaf. Add the salt, sugar and the currants (or raisins). Mix ingredients gently by using your hands to toss the fruit around in the flour mixture. Break egg into a 2 cup measuring cup and gently mix it with a fork. Pour buttermilk into the measuring cup with the egg and fill to the 2 cup line, mix gently to combine. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture. Pour the buttermilk and egg mixture into the well and, using one hand, gently combine ingredients with fingers, moving your hand in a circular motion around the bowl. The goal is to draw the flour mixture into the buttermilk and egg mixture. By mixing it gently and quickly, you’ll help to keep the dough light and airy. At this point, the dough should be soft, but not super wet and tacky. Tip: Be sure to not over-mix your dough. When it comes together, turn the dough out onto a well-floured work surface.
Wash and dry hands. With floured fingers, lightly knead the dough for a few seconds, just to clean it up a bit. Pat dough into a round about 2 ¼ to 3 inches high. Transfer to a baking sheet lightly dusted with flour (or a silicone baking mat). Using a sharp knife, cut a deep cross in the dough. Tip: Don’t be afraid to go quite deep with your knife. The cross will allow the dense center to bake more evenly. Place baking sheet in the oven and immediately reduce temperature to 400°F. Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, keeping an eye on it, until the crust is golden brown and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped. If using an instant-read thermometer, the bread should register 180°F when inserted in center of bread. Tip: If you find your crust is getting too brown too quickly, place a sheet of aluminum foil over dough for remaining bake time.
After baking, brush with melted unsalted butter and allow to cool for about 10 minutes, then slice into it. Serve with a smear of salted butter and/or fruit jam. Tip: Eat as soon as possible, as this bread is best the day it is baked!
~Sara, Sara’s Kitchen
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