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Complete History of Soda Bread
April 19, 2020
Irish Traditions
Complete history and chronology of classic Irish soda bread
The complete history of Irish soda bread beginning with why soda bread is called soda bread in the first place.
  • Origin of Irish Soda Bread
  • Chronology of Soda Bread

To substitute the potato, during the famine, the Irish turned to soda bread as a staple . Thereafter, its' look and aroma quickly became associated with Ireland

Other than potatoes and the delicious Shepherd’s Pie, another popular food from the Emerald Isle is the Irish soda bread. This is undoubtedly an Irish classic that should not be missed on St. Patrick Day’s celebration. As the day approaches,you can see many Irish households and pubs baking them in droves.

Irish bread is undoubtedly a symbol of the celebration for many people. This hearty and delicious staple at the dinner table is quick and easy to bake. However,you will be surprised to learn that its humble beginning is out of necessity rather than one of culinary adventure. Here is a look at the fascinating history of soda bread and other interesting facts.

The Full Soda Bread Story

If you are a bit of a history junkie, you’ll love devouring (pun intended) this discussion about soda bread historical background.

Many Irish traditions are legendary, and its reach was far beyond the country. Take the soda bread; for instance, it is an international favorite. This Irish quick bread has its place in history. Did you know that this classic staple has only been around for a hundred years or so? It’s introduction to Irish baking was in the 1840s and coincided with the introduction of baking soda.

Irish baking is heavily influenced by two major factors: climate and abundance of fuel. Because of the effects of the Gulf Stream on Ireland, the country has two climates: hot summer and cold winter. These affect the crops that farmers grow on their lands, including wheat, which makes flour. They cannot grow . It’s the kind of grain used in making high gluten content flours that reacts well to yeast. What they can grow in abundance is soft wheat.

Another factor that affected their baking is the availability of fuel. Compared with the feudal lords of England and other parts of Europe who have tight control over their forest, the Irish do not experience such, and they have access to abundant firewood. Hence every house can afford to bake and don’t need to use a communal oven to conserve their fuel.

These two factors lead the Irish people to try their hands in experimenting with different recipes to sustain their families with bread. Bread making is an integral part of their daily lives. Even families in the most isolated houses in the farms have open hearths as a substitute for an oven, and their bread is baked on griddles or the classic black iron pots.

The Origin of Irish Soda Bread

The chronology of soda bread started in Ireland in the early 1800s. Baking soda or sodium bicarbonate became available in Ireland in the 1840s. However, the first soda bread recipe dates back to 1836.

The poverty and potato famine in Ireland affected the needy families in Ireland. To have a substitute for potato, they turn to soda bread as a permanent staple on their diet. It is the easiest and cheapest bread to put on the table. It only needs flour, buttermilk or soured milk, and of course, baking soda.

Even though soda bread is a famous Irish bread, they are not the first to discover the chemical process behind buttermilk and baking soda. The discovery was made across the Atlantic, by the Native American Indians. They are the first to use pearl ash and soda ash on their bread. The first soda bread in -colonial America predates that of the Irish. The first recipes for soda bread appeared in the American Cookery book in 1796 by Amelia Simmons and in the Virginia Housewife in 1824 by Mary Randolph. The use of baking soda as a primary leavening agent is also the reason behind its name, soda bread. Most breads in Ireland were called soda bread for a time, while the breads available in big cities are known as bakery bread.

The combination of baking soda and buttermilk makes the soda bread dough rise. And for the Irish farmers, these two ingredients are readily available.  Buttermilk is a by-product in butter production, and baking soda is an inexpensive alternative with a longer shelf life to yeast.

The combination of baking soda and buttermilk makes the soda bread dough rise. And for the Irish farmers, these two ingredients are readily available.  Buttermilk is a by-product in butter production, and baking soda is an inexpensive alternative with a longer shelf life to yeast.

The chemical reaction between the acid (in buttermilk) and base (in the baking soda) produces small carbon dioxide bubbles making the bread rise. It’s a perfect solution for low-income families because they have a quick and easy bread for their table. They normally baked their soda bread in open hearths using griddles or bastibles. These are large cast-iron pots with sunken lids where you can put coals on top of the pot.

Before baking, Irish cut a deep cross on top of the dough. Some say it’s to protect the family and ward off evil, but there is a practical explanation for this.  The cross allows the center of the soda bread to be cooked thoroughly and not be too dense. Soda breads have a tender and dense texture with a little sour tang and a hard crust. It’s perishable but can last up to three days if you store it properly.

The Irish people have thousands of recipes for soda bread. It also comes indifferent shapes, depending on the regions where it was prepared. In the North,the soda breads are divided into triangles, and each of them is cooked in a skillet.The people in the South produce round-shaped soda breads with a cross on top.

And the tradition leaves on. Today, soda bread is internationally known as Irish soda bread. Its taste and aroma are automatically associated with Ireland and is a favorite by both locals and tourists. Although there are many available soda breads in the supermarkets, Irish families still bake their soda breads from heirloom recipes handed down from one generation to the next.

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