It's a beautiful dough that produces a tender crumb, good rise, and rich flavor. It makes two loaves, so feel free to keep one and give the other away to spread the St. Paddy's Day cheer!
History of Irish soda bread
Irish soda bread came to be in the 1830s with the introduction of baking soda. It was popular in Ireland at the time because of how quickly it came together and how readily available the ingredients were. The popularity of the bread was likely bolstered by the start of the Great Hunger in 1845. It also enabled people who didn't have an oven, which was a lot of people at the time, to still make bread.
Irish soda bread has very few ingredients: flour, sour milk or buttermilk, baking soda, and salt. It's pretty straight forward. This was not a sweet, celebratory bread, but rather a daily bread. If sugar and raisins are added to the base, it would be called spotted dog, which is also a traditional recipe (although no longer Irish soda bread), but once other ingredients are added, such as cream, eggs, or anything else, it would likely be more closely related to a tea cake as far as Irish tradition goes. At this point you've probably noticed that my photos have raisins and you're thinking to yourself "why did you use raisins if that's not traditional?!" Let's talk about that.
Irish Soda Bread In the United States
In the US, things get a little....complicated. Every family has their own unique recipe for soda bread and all will insist that theirs is the most authentic and "right" way to make it. Some are sweet. Some are not. Some have caraway seeds or raisins (or both). And while the point can obviously be made that all of these extra ingredients make these recipes something other than soda bread, it should also be stated that they are all completely and totally authentic versions of a well-loved tradition of recipes for their own regions and fascinating origins. For example, people who lived in the Northern regions of Ireland split their bread into fours and cooked it on a griddle; while people from the Southern regions typically baked it in round loaves with a cross cut on the top to "let the devil out." Caraway seeds were added to breads typically by people who came from Donegal and Leitrim. These types of variations account for some of the different forms "soda bread" tends to take in the US.
I like to imagine these familiar recipes being quickly scribbled onto scraps of paper and packed into bags by those on their way to new lives in the United states. Perhaps these breads were later sweetened and had additional modifications a few generations down the line as families grew. It's well documented that food traditions that originated in Ireland morphed into something similar and yet different once immigrants brought these traditions to the United States. Corned beef and cabbage is a prime example of this. Some changes were due mostly to the availability of ingredients in the new places that people settled, but I'm sure some people just added what tasted good to them!
With that said, that does not make these dishes or traditions any less authentic. They are, in fact, very authentic...authentically Irish-American. These changes tell the stories of what people went through, how they celebrated, and how their lives evolved and took root in a new land.
This particular recipe came to me through a friend of my mother. This friend had a vacation home in Ireland for many years and her elderly neighbor gifted her with this recipe. By the time it came to me, it had "Irish Soda Bread" scrawled at the top, so that is what I tend to call it. I will, however, be the first to admit that it is more scone-like than bread. Actually that is one of my favorite things about it! I have made it every year since receiving it, which was quite a long time ago, so it has become a much-loved tradition in my house. This sweet bread, while definitely not a traditional Irish soda bread recipe in the strictest sense, is still an authentic (and delicious) way to celebrate our families, ancestors, and the long journey these recipes have taken from their kitchens to ours. Sláinte!
As a side note: If you would like to try to create a very authentic and traditional version of soda bread, I would encourage you to head on over to the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread, where they have some great traditional recipes to try!
Making this bread
To get started, preheat your oven to 350 F and grease two cake pans. The pans I use in these photos are nine inches. Whisk together all of your dry ingredients. When measuring out your flour, be careful not to pack down. Use a spoon to scoop it into your measuring cup so it stays somewhat fluffy. Once all of your dry ingredients are whisked together, you can add your butter. You can use any kind of unsalted butter, but my preference is Kerry Gold, so that its what I suggest. Cut it into the mixture using a pastry cutter or by rubbing it into the flour with your fingers until you get a mixture that looks like course sand. Next add your raisins to the mixture and toss to coat in flour.
At this point you can add your buttermilk. Use a fork to mix it until all of the liquid is absorbed. Dump the mixture onto a work surface and use your hands to bring the dough together into a ball. You don't want to knead the dough as this will make your end product tough. Just pull the dough into a pile and gently press until it forms a ball. If it's still very crumbly and not holding together, you can add a couple tablespoons more of buttermilk. This could happen depending on how dry your kitchen is and what kind of flour you use. Generally, though, I don't have to add more liquid. I just carefully pull it together and press until I have a ball. Now you'll need to split the dough in half. I just use my bench knife for this, but you can also use a sharp knife.
At this point, you can decide for yourself how you would like it to be shaped. Sometimes I form two balls and score them. Other time, I split the loaf into four to make big coffee shop style scones. I love doing this because it makes a nice grab and go snack or breakfast. This is your bread, so do whatever makes the most sense to you! For these photos, I baked one of each. The cooking times were very similar. The loaf took a few minutes longer to brown the way I like, but if you check them both at 40 minutes, you shouldn't have any problems.
If you decide to shape them like scones, separate them a little so they are not touching. The distance I have them apart in the photo above, is far enough that they will rise into each other, but will easily separate once baked. Once they are shaped, put them straight into the oven for 40 minutes. When they are lightly browned on top and a toothpick comes out clean, they are ready. As soon as they come out of the oven, rub the tops with a stick of butter and then sprinkle with sugar. Transfer to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely before cutting.
Irish-American Style Soda Bread
4 cups flour
1 cup white granulated sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp kosher salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter (12 Tbsp or 1.5 sticks) plus more for topping
1 cup golden raisins
1⅓ cups buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 350 F and grease two 9 inch cake pans
In a large bowl, whisk together the first 5 ingredients
Cut butter into the dry mixture and combine until it resembles fine sand
Stir in raisins. Toss until they are coated with the flour mixture.
Add buttermilk; stir with a fork until it begins to come together. Dump contents of your bowl onto a counter or other work surface and continue to combine with your hands until the dough just comes together to form a sticky ball that holds together on it's own. Do not knead or work the dough past this point
Split the dough into two halves
Take the first half and form a round loaf, place in the center of a 9"cake pan, and score it deeply down the middle from top to bottom and left to right to form a cross shape
Repeat with the second half of the dough and place both cake pans on the center rack of the oven
Bake for 40-50 minutes or until a toothpick stuck into the center of each loaf comes out clean
When loaves are cooked through, remove from oven and immediately rub the top of each loaf lightly with butter. Top with sugar. Allow to cool completely before cutting.
Makes 2 loaves or 8 large scones