The Glory of Irish Soda Bread (Even If It's Cake)

>It's your duty to eat soda bread today. Even if it isn't really bread. But today's a holiday! Hunt down the real thing later.

On March 17, all thoughts in Boston turn to Irish soda bread. Or, rather, Irish cake. Anyone who grew up or has spent time in Ireland grows testy at the confections that go by the name in this country—and in Boston, a city still defined by its Irish heritage, that testiness can get heated.

Real soda bread is just that—bread, made as a staple, never including luxury ingredients like eggs, sugar, raisins, caraway seeds, or, certainly, whiskey (recall that the Irish use the "e," Scots write "whisky"). It was for everyday use, and its distinctive soft, crumbly, dense texture results from the "soft" wheat that grows in the cool climate of Ireland, meaning that it doesn't have enough protein to form the gluten structure of yeast-raised breads. Hence the use of baking soda, originally potash, as a leavening agent. The advantage is that it's a quickbread, easily mixed and put right into the oven, no rising time necessary. The disadvantage is the relative density and heaviness relative to yeasted breads, and the crumbliness and low height that don't lend themselves to sandwiches.

For an example of that testiness, stop anyone with a brogue on his or her way to a parade today. Or consult The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread, a site devoted only to soda bread, which gets right to testy definitions:

Would "French Bread" (15th century) still be "French Bread" if whiskey, raisins, or other random ingredients were added to the mix? Would Jewish Matzo (unleavened bread) used to remember the passage of the Israelites out of Egypt still be Matzo if we add raisins, butter, sugar, eggs, and even orange zest? So why is traditional "Irish Soda Bread" (19th century) turned into a dessert and labeled "Traditional Irish Soda Bread?"

It's understandable. There's no greater treat than a slice of warm Irish soda bread—you're allowed to eat it straight out of the oven, unlike yeast breads, which need at least 40 minutes and better an hour for the structure to set—with Irish butter, the best in the world. I also think Irish breads are among the best in the world, an opinion I've stated at length: the soft brown flour, most similar to what's sold in the US as whole-wheat pastry flour but softer still, and much nuttier and fresher in flavor, can redefine what you think of as the taste of wheat.

The problem is getting it. As I wrote when I went to a day-long seminar on Irish baking under the auspices of the Bread Bakers Guild of America, that low-protein flour may be a case of making a virtue of necessity in Ireland, but it's a virtue that's hard to find in this country. We have "stronger" flours, and are unaccustomed to the plainness of real soda bread. So all we want, or are used to, is versions with the un-echt, usually sweet additions (though, as with cornbread, jalapenos make their way into various "Irish" breads too). The guardians of echt particularly despair when it comes to judging: witness this from the preservation-society site, with the perhaps predictable headline "It happens every year around St. Patrick's Day," and this from our local radio station WBUR's nationally broadcast noontime show Here & Now, which invited staff members of Irish heritage to enter a soda bread bake-off, judged by their resident chef Kathy Gunst and Ed O'Dwyer, of the preservation society. Gunst, who described herself as a "nice Jewish girl," was delighted to agree with O'Dwyer as to which of the five entries in the blind tasting was best.

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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