If you have ever thought, “I can’t make bread,” then this is one recipe I hope you will try. Not only are the ingredients simple, but the method is also very different from a yeasted bread. Baking soda and buttermilk react quickly to give rise to the bread, so you don’t have to wait around for the dough to double in size. No kneading is required or even desired, as the delicate nature of the dough can be toughened with too much handling. Heck, you don’t even need an oven, because soda bread can be “baked” inside a cast-iron Dutch oven, right over an open fire if necessary.
This quick bread, long believed to be original to Ireland, is actually drawn from the history of Native Americans, who were first on record to use soda ash to leaven breads. Early Irish immigrants to the new country took notice of the chemical reaction the soda had with sour milk, and with the eventual advent of modern baking soda, the recipe found its way into a cookbook, which launched soda bread into popularity all over Europe. Today, it is closely linked to Irish-American culture, and very much associated with St. Patrick’s Day.
As if the ease of making it wasn’t attractive enough on its own, this easy-breezy soda bread is also remarkably flexible, and it can take you on a flavor journey to either end of the spectrum of sweet-to-savory. You can make it plain and simple, or dress it up with herbs, oat grains, spice seeds, dried fruit, honey or just about anything else that makes you happy. Other quick breads usually have a moist, tender interior. But soda bread, which has no eggs, butter or oil, is better described as soft and somewhat crumbly. My favorite flavor combination—and the one I’m sharing today—is golden raisins and caraway seeds. It may sound unusual, but it is delicious, especially toasted at breakfast with a generous smear of good Irish butter. I cannot wait to taste it again! 😊
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus some extra for dusting
1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour* (see notes)
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda (not baking powder)
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 tsp. caraway seeds
1 3/4 cups thick cultured buttermilk*, at room temperature
Whole wheat pastry flour is lighter in protein (and texture) than regular whole wheat flour, so it is perfect for a quick bread such as this one. I love this brand, which is available online but sometimes difficult to find in stores. If you cannot find it, don’t worry—just substitute for a total of 4 cups all-purpose flour.
Buttermilk is an important ingredient for this recipe because its acidity activates the baking soda to leaven the bread. Regular dairy or plant-based milks will not work on their own, but if you must substitute, add about 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar for each cup of other milk to achieve similar results. You only need enough buttermilk to sufficiently moisten the dry ingredients, so you may not use it all, but have it ready just in case.
Before we begin, do you remember doing this in science class, back in the day? I still love to have fun in the kitchen, so here’s a little reminder of what happens when baking soda and vinegar come together. The reaction between soda and buttermilk is very similar, and helps explain what makes this simple bread rise.
- Preheat oven to 425°F, with rack in the center of the oven. I’m baking my soda bread on a baking stone, so that gets preheated with the oven.
- Combine flours, sugar, salt, baking soda, raisins and caraway seeds in a large bowl.
- Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in most of the buttermilk. Use a wooden or heavy spoon to mix at first, then switch to mixing with your hands when the dough begins to feel stiff. If needed, add the remaining buttermilk, but only enough to moisten and incorporate all the flour.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured countertop or board and knead very briefly, until dough is cohesive but still “shaggy” in appearance. Shape dough into a round ball, about eight inches across. Transfer the dough to a parchment lined (or oiled) baking sheet.
- Use a sharp, serrated knife to make deep cuts in the shape of an X or cross on top of the dough.
- Bake 25-30 minutes, until golden brown and crunchy on the edges. If you tap the bottom of the loaf, it should sound a bit hollow.
- Transfer soda bread to a cooling rack for a few minutes. Enjoy warm or room temperature.