With St. Patrick’s Day right around the corner, ‘tis the season for Irish soda bread. But why wait until March every year to make it? By using the Irish method, home-baked bread is about an hour away. There’s no finicky yeast involved, so there’s no waiting for the dough to rise. The bread is terrific slathered with butter when freshly made, yet downright irresistible when sliced and toasted several days later and um, slathered with butter. Again. As easy as it is to make, here are a few tips that will yield a better loaf.
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Baking Soda: Known as bread soda in Ireland, baking soda tends to clump into small lumps after a while. And these lumps don’t break down when you simply whisk the dry ingredients together. You only need a tiny one in a single bite to get hit with an unpleasant metallic taste. Press your baking soda through a small sieve into the flour mixture. Or do as I saw Darina Allen, co-founder of the Ballymaloe Cookery School do: She measured the soda into the palm of one hand, pressed out the lumps with the fingers of the other hand, and then rubbed her hands into the flour.
Measuring Cups: Use dry measuring cups to measure your flour, the kind that allow you to swipe the edge of a knife across the flat top of the cup. Avoid liquid measures that don’t allow you to swipe. If you have to shake the flour to make it level, you’re using the wrong measuring cup and your bread will be too dry and floury. Why? Because every time you shake the flour in the cup, you are compressing it.
Making the Dough: Some people like to use a fork to stir the dough together, but Darina Allen prefers using one hand, which she stiffens into a “claw.” She pours the buttermilk into the flour mixture all at once, then thrusts her claw into the middle. Working in circles from the center outward, she stirs the mixture until the flour is evenly moistened. The dough should be on the soft side and a bit moist, but not too wet.
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To Knead Or Not to Knead: Darina Allen and her brother Rory O’Connell, co-founders of the Ballymaloe Cookery School, agree that soda bread dough shouldn’t be kneaded. Instead, they advise you to be as gentle as possible with the dough. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface—I like to use a pastry cloth to keep flour from getting all over my kitchen floor. At this point Allen washes and dries her hands. Then she flours her clean hands in order to flip the dough over and shape it into a domed round about 1 1/2 inches at it’s highest point.
Meanwhile, I’ve tasted plenty of soda breads that were gently kneaded briefly, no more than six or eight times, and I have to say that I didn’t notice a big difference in texture between those and Allen’s. Whatever you choose to do, the operative word is gentle!
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Cutting the Cross: Don’t forget to make a deep crosscut in the center of the loaf. I find that after I make the first cut, I need to start in the center and cut towards the outer edge in order to make the two remaining shorter cuts to form the cross. And perhaps it’s heresy to the Irish, but I find a razor blade or a small serrated knife work well. For the superstitious among us, Allen suggests pricking the corner of each quarter with the knife to let the fairies out. (And why not? The minor knife-pricks won’t alter how the bread bakes!)
Raisins: The Irish tend not to add raisins to their everyday brown soda bread (made with whole-wheat flour) or their white soda bread. The inclusion of raisins and caraway seeds is more a mark of Irish-American versions. Some recipes add the raisins to the flour mixture, but I’ve had better luck adding the raisins to the dough just as it’s beginning to come together. If I add them to the flour first, the nooks and crannies in the raisins hold little pockets of flour that seem to elude the buttermilk. And when I slice the finished loaf, I find bits of raw flour surrounding the raisins—not my idea of appetizing.