Saturday, March 16, 2013

Irish Soda Bread: the story of how I won a competition and what I learned

So last weekend I participated in my first ever amateur baking competition at the Irish American Heritage Museum in Albany and... drumroll... I WON!

The competition had three categories (traditional white, traditional brown, and untraditional/family recipe) and 52 loaves were submitted.  I submitted loaves for all three (which required that I bake 6 loaves of bread) and I won the 1st place for prize for traditional white soda bread

Here I am receiving my prize:  Irish Soda Bread competition winners and here is an post about it from the local newspaper blog, table hopping.  (my claim to to fame!)

Here are the award winning loaves before they were packed up to go to the museum:

In preparing for this competition, I did a ton of research and read a ton of recipes and baked a LOT of Irish Soda Bread (15 loaves total!).  What follows is a description of what I learned, as well as some of the recipes and techniques I recommend trying.

What is Traditional Irish Soda Bread?
Although when most people think of Irish soda bread they think of the cakey bread that is studded with raisins and caraway seeds and is sold throughout America on St. Patrick's Day, real traditional Irish soda bread only contains these four ingredients: flour, baking soda (or bread soda), salt, and buttermilk (or sour milk). 

The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread has a lot of helpful and interesting information about traditional soda bread and its history.  It strongly admonishes anything with extra ingredients (raisins, sugar, eggs, butter) as NOT traditional soda bread.  If it has raisins, it is what is known as "spotted dog" or "railway cake."

The surprise for me is that, as good as the more cake-like soda bread recipes are, I really LIKE traditional soda bread.  It is dense and has a pure soda taste that is wonderful toasted with butter and/or jam and is a perfect compliment to a hearty soup, stew, or chili.  I think I will be making traditional Irish soda bread many more times in the future than the untraditional cake-like version.

Tips on Baking Traditional Irish Soda Bread
Although traditional Irish soda bread only contains the four basic ingredients listed above, and the competition rules were strict that no other ingredients can be added, there is still a lot of skill to making a good traditional soda bread.  The quality of the bread will depend on the quality of the ingredients and how similar they are to Irish ingredients, the measurements, and how the bread is cooked.

A note on flour:  For my award-winning soda bread, I used half unbleached all-purpose flour and half white pastry flour.  Pastry flour (or cake flour) is softer and is more similar to flour used in Ireland.  You can find pastry flour at whole foods stores or co-ops that have bulk items.  Odlums is a distributor of Irish flour and if you have access to that, that is probably even better.  Although my traditional wheat bread did not win, I think using part (or entirely) whole wheat pastry flour will result in a more traditional brown bread. 

Measurements:  Recipes vary in their proportions of flour, salt, baking soda, and buttermilk.  I used the measurements given on the website above by the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread (see recipes below).

Handling:  It is important not to over handle or knead the dough.  The dry ingredients should be lightly mixed together, and then add the buttermilk slowly,  mixing with your fingers or a wooden spoon until a sticky dough forms.  Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead just a couple times until the dough is cohesive.  Over-kneading the dough allows the gas to escape and will result in a tough bread.

Heat and cooking method:  In my experience, a hotter oven is better for traditional soda bread and, as suggested by the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread, baking the bread in a cake pan covered with another cake pan for the first part of cooking, and then removing the top to finish the baking process, works wonderfully.  I think this results in a moister bread.  It also more closely mimicks the "Bastible" pot that was traditionally used back in the day in Ireland.  I also tried using a dutch oven for the bread and this worked well too, except for some reason (i'm not sure why - something about the heat distribution) the cake pan method seemed to work a little better.

Preparing ahead: Soda bread, I'm afraid, is not one of those things you can prepare ahead.  Most soda bread dries out extremely fast and is not that great the next day.  Traditional soda bread seems to keep a little longer than the untraditional recipes, still tasting wonderful toasted for a couple days after baking.


Traditional White Irish Soda Bread:

4 cups white flour (2 cups all-purpose + 2 cups white pastry flour, if you have access to it)
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
14 oz buttermilk or sour milk

Instructions: Preheat the oven to 425 F.   Lightly grease a 9 inch cake pan.  In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients.  Add buttermilk and mix with fingers or wooden spoon until a sticky dough forms.  Turn onto a floured surface and knead once or twice, just until cohesive.  Pat into a flat round and cut a 1/2 inch deep cross on the top with a sharp floured knife, going over the edges of the dough, to "let the fairies out."  Cover the pan with another pan and bake for 30 minutes.  Remove cover and bake another 15 minutes.  The dough will sound hollow when tapped on the bottom if it is done.  Cover with a tea towel (you can sprinkle some water on the towel to keep bread moist).  Eat immediately!

Traditional Brown Irish Soda Bread:

4 cups whole wheat flour (half whole wheat pastry flour, if you have access to it)
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
14 oz buttermilk or sour milk

Instructions: Follow instructions for traditional white Irish soda bread (immediately above).

Untraditional Irish Soda Bread Recipes

Over the last several weeks, I also attempted several different recipes for untraditional Irish soda breads.  These recipes are as varied as you can imagine -- most have raisins or currants, some have caraway seeds, most have sugar (or honey), many have butter (as little as 2 Tbs and as much as 1 stick), some have an egg, some have 2 eggs, many have baking powder (some have cream of tartar), some have yogurt or sour cream, some even have orange or lemon zest or a bit of cardamom.  The variations are endless!  39 loaves of untraditional/"family recipe" breads were submitted at the competition last week and no two loaves looked alike.

So clearly I did not try all the variations.   Here are a few I tried and liked:

James Beard's Irish Soda Bread
(adapted by me as follows...)

James Beard's recipe is almost traditional, except for the addition of 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1 tablespoon of sugar. 
I made a few changes, namely, adding raisins once (currants another time) and combining some yogurt with the buttermilk to make it thicker (which I read somewhere was more similar to buttermilk found in Ireland).  I also used pastry flour rather than regular flour, but regular flour would be fine here if you do not have pastry flour. 


3 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup white pastry flour
1 tsp. soda
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 T. sugar
1 1/4 cup buttermilk mixed with 1/2 cup whole milk plain yogurt
1 cup raisins (or currants)

Instructions:  Preheat oven to 425 F.  Grease a dutch oven or pie pan.  Soak raisins in hot water for 10 minutes.  Meanwhile, mix dry ingredients.  Combine yogurt and buttermilk and add to flour mixture until sticky dough forms.  Knead gently on floured surface a few times until dough is cohesive.  Pat dough into a 9 inch round, cut a cross on top with a sharp floured knife, and place dough in pan and bake covered for 30 minutes.  Remove cover and bake another 15 minutes.  Bread is done when dough sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.

My Irish Soda Bread

After playing with a number of recipes, I sorta combined what I liked of them to come up with this version, which is what I submitted at the competition.

4 cups white pastry flour
4 T. sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
4 T. cold unsalted butter, cut up into 1/2 inch pieces
9-12 oz buttermilk + 3-4 oz plain whole milk yogurt
1 cup of currants 

Instructions: Preheat oven to 400 F.  Grease a baking sheet.  Soak currants in hot water for 10 minutes while you prepare other ingredients.  Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl.  Using fingertips, pinch in the butter until a coarse crumbs form.  Drain currants and add to flour mixture.  Mix to evenly distrubte.  Whisk together buttermilk and yogurt and add slowly to dry ingredients, until a sticky dough forms (it should not be too sticky to handle).  Turn onto a floured surface and gently form into a flat round, approximately 9 inches in diameter.  Cut a cross in the top with a floured sharp kitchen knife.  Place on greased baking sheet and bake for 35-40 minutes, until golden brown and a  toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. 

Other recipes to try:  

This recipe from epicurious was good but a little too cake-like for my personal tastes.  I made it with part whole wheat flour and part white flour and decreased the sugar to 2/3 of a cup: 

Irish Soda Bread with Raisins and Caraway

I also intend to try this recipe but haven't yet, as it is the one from Cook's Illustrated and is also featured on smitten kitchen: Irish soda bread scones