How to Make Truly Great Irish Soda Bread

How to Make Truly Great Irish Soda Bread

Irish soda bread is a reliable “anytime-food,” but it’s especially apt for celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. This hearty loaf can be a real boon to a packed schedule, since it has few ingredients, the dough comes together in minutes, and it’s ready to eat in less than an hour. Sadly, I’ve come across a host of flat, stodgy soda breads in my journeys, and I don’t want that for you this March 17th. Use these tips to troubleshoot your bake, and you’ll be inspired to whip up soda bread well into summer.

Breads can be separated into two categories of leavening: slow breads and quick breads. (No one really calls them slow breads, but for now we can.) Slow breads are leavened with yeast, and those little gas gremlins can take multiple hours to make enough bubbles for a fluffy, tall bread. Quick breads are leavened with a chemical leavener, usually baking powder or baking soda. (You get one guess on which leavener Irish soda bread uses.) Chemical leaveners start making bubbles immediately once they have been introduced to a liquid, with double-acting baking powder getting a second activation when exposed to heat.

The baking soda in soda bread allows anyone to make a lovely loaf in under an hour, but it’s almost too effective. The speed with which baking soda works can lead to some common problems.

Why is my soda bread flat?

The easiest way to tell if your Irish soda bread is flat is to look at it. If it’s the same size as it was when it went in the oven, only browner, it’s flat. You can also observe the typical cross pattern that is cut into the top; the bread should visibly break open and expand where you scored it. The following are the most common reasons your soda bread might be flat.

You might be overworking the dough.

When you add the liquid ingredient to your mixture, the baking soda will activate and begin to release carbon dioxide bubbles that hopefully get trapped in the dough, lifting it upward. This carbon dioxide party is limited. If you casually fuss with your dough, go do laundry, and then remember you have to preheat your oven, the baking soda will finish making bubbles and deflate. By the time you get it in the oven, there is no spring left and it will be flat.

Avoid a flat soda bread with a couple simple moves. Keep your mix time quick. Pour in the liquid ingredient, mix it enough to moisten the dry ingredients, shape it, and quickly get it in the oven. Be sure to have your pan ready. If you’re using a Dutch oven, make sure you’ve already pulled that 9 kg hulk out from the back of the cabinet so you don’t waste time.

You may need a different cooking vessel.

Most breads benefit from an initially humid baking environment. This allows the outer crust of the bread to stay flexible longer, which allows for more expansion in those score marks. If you’ve been cooking soda bread on a sheet tray, try using something with a lid for the first 30 minutes. A Dutch oven works well for Irish soda bread because cast iron holds onto the high temperature, keeps the baking even, and the lid is easy to take off. If you don’t have a Dutch oven, you can use a cast iron skillet with an overturned cake pan of equal circumference to act as a lid, or two equally-sized cake pans to clamshell around the soda bread. Take the lid off for the last 15 or so minutes and brown the top of the bread.

You need to preheat the damn oven.

I don’t want to say more, but I will. The carbon dioxide bubbles are popping and they won’t come back. Under the perfect conditions, the bubbles will lift the dough high and the heat will cook the structure, solidifying its final height, whatever that may be. A cold oven will only delay cooking, dry out the crust, and spend your valuable bubbles before the bread gets a chance to fully bake.

Why is my bread tough?

There are around four or five ingredients in Irish soda bread. The texture of the bread will be largely affected by the ingredient combination and how you mix the dough. The baking soda is responsible for the rise, which also affects the texture. Here are the most common reasons your soda bread is coming out tough.

You might be over-mixing.

Bakers annoyingly harp on over-mixing and overworking dough for a reason (or a couple reasons). Over-mixing the dough can lead to developing strong, rubbery gluten strands and deflating bubbles, which we’ve discussed. This inhibits rise, but also dictates if the crumb will be tough or tender. Properly mixed soda bread has masses of bubbles and an average gluten structure, which makes for a better crumb. The bread bakes and seals in thousands of bubbles with thin walls that are easy to cut with a knife and soft when bitten. With over-mixed dough, you can expect fewer air pockets, and the walls surrounding the bubbles to be thick, rubbery, and dense.

Like I mentioned earlier, keep the mixing quick and be gentle. Use a bowl scraper instead of a spoon and press the dough instead of stirring to avoid developing strong gluten strands, and don’t continue to knead your dough until it’s smooth. Irish soda bread shouldn’t look like a perfect, shiny ball of dough before it hits the oven. This is your chance to practice “rustic-chic.” It’s ok to leave some scraggly looking dry pieces on the dough. Score it with a knife and get it in the oven. It will bake up beautifully.

You might not have an acid to react with the baking soda.

A weak reaction from your leavening agent can lead to a tough, dense crumb. Baking soda can work under the right conditions without an acidic ingredient (high temperatures and a humid environment), but it works more rapidly and vigorously when it is paired with an acid. Most Irish soda bread recipes will use buttermilk or yogurt to trigger the baking soda. Check the recipe to see if you’re using an acidic liquid. If not, squeeze a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar into your liquid ingredients to help the soda be its best self.

I hate raisins, so I hate Irish soda bread.

I hear you, raisin haters. There’s this idea lurking about that all Irish soda bread must be studded with yucky raisins. It’s a big lie. It turns out you can do whatever the heck you want in your own kitchen. Find a recipe, and swap out the raisin for the same amount of something you actually like. Try this bacon cheddar Irish soda bread, or use dried cherries, chopped apricots, chocolate chips, chopped pecans, cubed cheese, caramelised onions, or crumbled sausage. You can also omit inclusions entirely, and leave it plain. When using fruits, veggies, or meats, just make sure the water content is mostly eliminated, or you might get a soggy, steam pocket around those mix-ins. Avoiding that is easy; simply use dry fruit or pre-cook the meats and veg. Now go forth, and take your soda bread know-how to the nearest kitchen.

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