Irish soda bread began in the 19th century when baking soda was introduced to the lower class households of Ireland. Because ovens were scarce, soda and buttermilk were desirable because of their effectiveness in creating a plump loaf in a cast iron pot, or bastible. There are two basic types of soda bread that have been refined and adapted considerably in the past two centuries.
Wheat in Ireland is not as hard as wheat grown in other places and, therefore, does not bear kneading and yeast rising well. These elastic qualities are not necessary when using the soda and buttermilk (both of which were readily available).
Brown Soda Bread
Brown soda bread is made from whole flour. Whole flour in the 19th century was less refined and, therefore, less expensive. Whole flour was combined with buttermilk, salt and soda to fill everyday needs. The color of the flour lent its name to brown soda bread.
White Soda Bread
More refined, more expensive white flour was used to create white soda bread. As a more expensive product, white soda bread was originally only for special occasions.
Seeds, raisins, wheat germ, dried tomatoes, nuts and herbs can all be added to soda bread but are not considered traditional ingredients.
Adding anything to the basic flour, buttermilk, soda and salt recipe is considered an alteration. American recipes typically use eggs, butter or sugar and are not, technically, Irish soda bread. They are cakes. The addition of raisins is called a spotted dog. Adding molasses creates treacle bread.
Cooking and Serving
Originally soda breach was cooked in a cast-iron Dutch oven called a bastible. The oven was set directly on the coals with a few coals set on top of the lid. Before cooking, a deep cross was cut into the top of soda bread. While this cross enabled the bread to cook more evenly, it has acquired several folklore explanations, such as letting out evil spirits.
The cross on top of the soda loaf helps divide it into four equal parts, or farls. More common to Northern Ireland, the farls can be cooked on a griddle and are part of the traditional breakfast, or Ulster fry. The use of soda to leaven bread was originally discovered by the Native Americans, who used pot ash in their bread. Commercial production of baking soda began in 1835 with the establishment of the Royal Baking Company in England.