As the oldest of nine children, Darina Allen remembers watching her mother bake bread just about every day of her life in their Cullohill, Ireland, home. And often that bread was a loaf of classic Irish soda bread.
“When we were little mommy would give us a little bit of dough and I’d shape that beside her in a little flour,” says Allen, founder and principal of the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Shanagarry, Ireland. “I just always knew how to make bread. It was like I had absorbed it by osmosis.”
While those early, miniature loaves of soda bread didn’t turn out quite like her mother’s—“it was hard as a rock because it was over handled”—the experience, along with her family’s kitchen garden and their “house cow,” was an early inspiration for Allen’s career as a chef, instructor, television personality and cookbook author. After marrying and moving to Ballymaloe, she continued developing her culinary prowess with guidance from Myrtle Allen, her mother-in-law and Michelin starred chef of Ballymaloe House.
Now, one of the staples that Allen teaches every student passing through her school is humble soda bread.
“I love showing people how to make soda bread because I’ve been making it all of my adult life and quite a bit of my childhood,” Allen says. “And every time I take a loaf right out of the oven, I get a [feeling] in my tummy because there’s something almost primeval about making bread.”
The recipe—consisting of all-purpose flour, salt, baking soda and sour milk or buttermilk—takes only a few minutes to mix and less than an hour to bake. You can also customize the bread by adding sweet or savory ingredients to the mix, like raisins, cheese and fresh herbs.
“It doesn’t matter what country you come from, everybody should be able to make soda bread,” says Allen. “It’s really important to teach our children practical life skills as well as academic skills, and that they are certainly of equal value and certainly not lesser value. It can change [a person’s] whole quality of life for the rest of their lives. I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to do that every day.”
Here’s Allen’s signature Irish soda bread recipe and advice for putting your spin on it.
Since there are just four ingredients in soda bread, each one is incredibly important. For instance, “you can’t make a good soda bread with bread flour because it’s too high in gluten,” says Allen. Because the bread doesn’t proof or rest at all prior to baking, there is no opportunity for the gluten to relax, so opt for all-purpose flour instead.
“The tradition of making soda bread developed in Ireland for a couple of reasons,” says Allen. “One was our climate here in Ireland—the type of wheat that grows well in this country is what we call a soft wheat, it’s a low-gluten wheat, which is not suitable for yeast breads, but is perfect for making a flatbread, a griddle bread or a soda bread.”
Then, baking soda was introduced to Ireland in the 1830s. The alkaline ingredient worked well in tandem with the sour milk (an acid) that was widely available across the country. “Many people who live in the country would have had a cow or else they would have access to a neighbor’s milk before electricity,” says Allen.
After a couple of days sitting out (modern refrigerators weren’t widely available until after World War II), the milk would go sour. When combined baking soda and buttermilk activate to create carbon dioxide bubbles that expand and rise in the heat of the oven.
“Another thing that’s very important in America is that, basically, all of your buttermilk as far as I know is either no fat or low fat,” says Allen. “If that’s what you have, you need to add a couple of tablespoons of cream or rub [about two tablespoons] of butter into the flour. You need that to give you a softness and a shortness to your bread.”
When making your soda bread, Allen says “it’s important to have a nice big bowl, so you can mix it comfortably. If you’re comfortable, it’s much more likely you’ll “do a good job and the bread won’t be so tight and heavy.”
You’ll mix all the ingredients together—combining the dry ingredients and then mixing in the milk by hand until the dough is somewhat soft and not too wet and sticky. Then, turn it out on a floured work surface and tidy it up. Next comes one of the most important steps.
“Then you cut a deep cross in [the dough] with a knife and prick it in the four corners,” says Allen. “That’s the traditional blessing. It lets the fairies out of your bread—that’s properly important because the fairies are always up to mischief here in Ireland and are blamed for all sorts of things.”
More practically, the cuts also allow the bread a natural place to split and open up, so you can be sure it bakes through. Lastly, be sure your oven is fully preheated before putting your loaf in to bake. “Once the alkali comes in contact with the acid, the reaction starts,” says Allen. “If you don’t get it into the oven so that it will expand and rise in the oven, it’ll be a flat and heavy loaf.”
You can give your Irish soda bread even more flavor by adding to the dough a variety of ingredients, like freshly chopped herbs, sliced olives and sun-dried tomatoes. Allen also likes to give her loaves an egg wash and cover them with grated cheese or seeds.
A traditional and popular add-in that dates back to the early days of Irish soda bread is dried fruit, particularly golden raisins. Fruit, eggs and sugar were “little extra luxuries” at the time and generally reserved for special occasions or when there might have been an excess of eggs on the homestead that could be traded like “pin money.”
American bakers may also be familiar with the variation that Allen refers to as Emigrants Bread, using caraway seeds, sugar, eggs and slightly less buttermilk (recipe below). “That was brought by the Irish to America and got slightly mixed up with seed cake, and caraway seeds thrown in,” she says. “It’s a really delicious version, but that is very unusual in Ireland.”
- 3 cups (450g) All-purpose flour, preferably unbleached
- .5 tsp Salt
- .5 tsp Baking soda
- 1.5–1.75 cups Sour milk or buttermilk
- Preheat your oven to 450ºF.
- Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl. Make a well in the center. Pour most of the milk in at once.
- Using one hand, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl, adding more milk if necessary. The dough should be softish, not too wet and sticky. When it all comes together, turn it out onto a well-floured work surface.
- Wash and dry your hands.
- Tidy up the dough and flip it over gently. Pat the dough into a round about one-and-a-half inches deep and cut a cross on it that goes over the side.
- Bake in a hot oven for 15 minutes, then turn down the oven to 400ºF for 30 minutes or until cooked. If you are in doubt, tap the bottom of the bread: if it is cooked it will sound hollow.
Irish Soda Scones: Make the dough as above but flatten the dough into a round 1-inch deep approx. Cut into scones. Cook for about 20 minute in a hot oven (see above).
Irish Soda Bread with Herbs: Add two-and-a-half tablespoons freshly chopped herbs (eg. rosemary, sage, thyme, chives, parsley, lemon balm) to the dry ingredients and continue as above. Shape into a loaf or scones. Bake as for soda bread.
Cheddar Cheese Scones or Herb & Cheese Scones: Make the Irish soda bread or herb dough. Roll into scones, brush the top of each one with egg wash and then dip into grated cheddar cheese. Bake as for soda scones.
Rosemary & Olive Scones: Add two tablespoons of chopped fresh rosemary and two-and-a-half tablespoons roughly chopped pitted black olives to the dry ingredients and proceed as in the standard recipe. Bake as for soda scones
Rosemary & Sun-dried Tomatoes Loaf: Add one-and-a-quarter to two-and-a-half tablespoons of chopped rosemary and two-and-a-half tablespoons of chopped sun-dried tomatoes to the flour and continue as in the standard recipe. Form into a loaf of bread or scones.
Olive Scones: Make Irish soda bread dough with or without herbs. Flatten into a 1-inch square. Dot the top with whole olives. Brush generously with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt, cut into square scones and bake as above.
Curry & Raisin Bread: Add one to two teaspoons of curry powder and three ounces of yellow raisins to the standard recipe.
American Emigrants Soda Bread: Add three ounces of yellow raisins and two teaspoons caraway seeds, one-and-a-quarter tablespoons of sugar and a beaten egg to the above recipe. Reduce the buttermilk by a quarter of a cup.