Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Wholemeal Soda Bread

I wrote this a few months ago and I meant to include some pictures. I have made it a number of times since, but keep forgetting to take pictures. The next time I bake, I will take some pictures and include them.

Soda Bread is strongly associated with Ireland. The Google machine returns 5,180,000 result pages when searching for 'Irish Soda Bread'. Bread Soda or Bicarbonate of Soda was first produced in 1791 and was then called soda ash. It is not clear when it first came to Ireland but it is suggested in the mid 19th century. That suggests around the time of the famine. Eek! More research required on this.

They type of flour produced in Ireland is known as 'Soft Flour'. This is a flour with lower levels of protein, then the flour produced in hotter countries which is known as 'Strong Flour'. Strong flour has higher levels of protein or gluten and is used for yeast bread. Soft flour is normally used to make cakes, pastry and quick breads like Soda Bread.  I wonder if that has anything to do with the high number of Coeliac sufferers in Ireland. Soft wheat/flour for ever, then Strong Flour for yeast bread. Who knows.

I first started making soda bread, when I was a kid with my mother.

The bread was a hearty product. She cooked it in a French Oven (Bastable), a cast iron pot like La Creuset, which was the traditional style. The French Oven could be used on an open fire which was common in the good old days. I remember when I was a chisler, we used to go to Kerry on holidays, seeing Mrs Healy and my friends father Tom Hallisey cooking the bread in a turf fire. They would put burning turf on the flat top of the pot, creating a real oven. The resulting bread was the best I had ever tasted. A growing lad is always hungry. The bread my mother made was quite deep and was made every couple of days. Cheaper and more filling then that shop bread made with the 'Chorleywood bread process'. We call it squishey bread.

It was probably the easiest way to feed three growing fellas.

She didn't really have a recipe, it was just so many cups of flour etc. The bread did vary a bit. Very nice from time to time.

For me baking is like chemistry - if you have a good recipe and follow it exactly, you will get the perfect product every time. This recipe makes quite a large loaf, so cut the quantities in half for a smaller one. I don't do smaller. Smaller means more often. I give two fingers to that.

So, like a chemistry experiment write up, we will have Introduction, Materials, Method and Results.

All measurements are metric.


This recipe only takes a few minutes to put together. It produces quite a large cake of bread.

The original recipe came from the excellent Ballymaloe Bread Book by Tim Allen. It's worth getting a copy of it.

I came up with the current version which I think is better.

There are many variables that effect good soda bread but the most important are the ingredients. Fresh flour is best. It does keep for quite a long time but it does deteriorate. If not stored properly, it can pick up weevils and other wriggly fellas. I know it is more protein. Your choice...

The type of wholemeal flour I prefer is the Odlums Extra Coarse variety. Good for the tubes.

I used to be able to get unbleached white flour made by Odlums, which was nice and was a sort yellow colour but this has been discontinued. They say all their flour is unbleached, however I don't believe them, as it has a different colour. I normally use their Cream (Plain) Flour which is OK.

Most of the butter milk available commercially is not real butter milk but is a cultured product. It is acceptable and is acidic enough. I had some whole organic milk I was going to use for a cheese making project, that never happened, as I got distracted by a shiny thing. It went sour and lumpy. My favorite. I made some soda bread with it and it was extra delicious.  Very buttery.

I try to use organic eggs. They have a better flavor and give the bread a greater depth. The better the eggs, the better the bread. If you know someone that has chickens or you can get fresh farm eggs that are good, use them. Hard to get though.

Bread Soda, aka Bicarbonate of Soda. This is pretty much a chemical, so there is no real quality issue. It must be kept dry, as it clumps very easily. It is important that it is fine sieved, due to the clumping issues, and you don't use to much. If you don't sieve it, you will get green spots and a rather unpleasant bicarb flavor. I have noticed that some of the commercial soda breads are rather green and have that bread soda taste. This is because they put too much bicarb in. Poo pants.

I like the flavor of Sesame seeds in bread. It gives a nice nutty taste. There are a number of types of Sesame seeds available. There used to be only the unhusked variety but these were replaced by the husked type. Why? They tasted the same and the unhusked variety had more fibre. More fibre in your diet is better, right? I came across some black sesame seeds recently in an Asian supermarket. They taste exactly the same but add black flecks to the bread. More colour... Nice crunchy texture too.


550g Wholemeal flour

450g Plain white flour

50g Sesame seeds

50g Sunflower seeds (These turn green when they react with the bread soda during baking. Nice)

2 Heaped teaspoons of Brown Sugar

2 Heaped teaspoons of Sea Salt

2 Level teaspoons of Bread Soda. Finely sieved.

2 Eggs 

30 to 40g Extra Virgin Olive Oil (You can also use butter but I like the Olive Oil. It is also easier to handle)

700 ml Butter Milk

A large bowl

Measuring Jug

Baking sheet/tray, nonstick if possible. I have a circular tray that I line with a silicon baking sheet. Very handy for removal later.

You will also need a second tray to put hot water in. More later.


Preheat the oven to 200C. If you have an oven thermometer, use it, as not all ovens reach the heat that the dial says.

Put the second tray at the bottom of the oven

Combine all the dry ingredients and mix well.

Put the 700ml butter milk, eggs and olive oil in the measuring jug and beat together.

What I do is pour in about 90% of the liquid into the dry ingredients and mix by hand. I form my hand into a claw shape and sort of lift the dry ingredients through the liquid, letting them combine. Sometimes the flour requires more liquid, so add it if required. What you are looking for is a dough that is damp. All the flour, etc have been absorbed. No dry bits. The key is a light touch. Putting pressure on the dough will drive out the CO2, which is the rising agent.

A quick note here in relation to what is happening. The bread soda is reacting with the acid in the butter milk producing carbon dioxide, which is the rising fella in the mixture. The objective is to keep as much of the CO2 in suspension. When this goes in the oven, the gas will expand and produce a lighter bread. The less handling the better.

Turn out the mixture onto your nonstick/floured baking sheet.

Shape as required. Make it more circular if you like. I usually don't bother, just plop it onto the tray. The dough usually fills out to the shape of the tray.

Sprinkle flour in a cross on top and use a knife or something to cut out the shape. I find that having flour in the cross helps it rise and separate.

Time is against you. The bread soda/butter milk reaction is still taking place, so get it in the oven as soon as possible.

Put some hot water in the heated second tray at the bottom of the oven. What this does is produce steam. The steam will delay the formation of the crust and allow all those little CO2 bubbles to be produced and expand to their maximum size. The dough will rise to it's maximum size again producing a lighter product.

Anyway, whack it in the oven.

I usually turn it after 15 minutes, as the back of my oven is hotter then the front. Reduce the temperature by 10 degrees to 90C or 80C.

Check it again after 10 to 15 minutes. It might need to be turned again. I give it a quick skewer test or temperature probe to see how it is getting on. It can probably take another 10 to 15 mins.

If it is not too cooked after that, I usually turn it over and give it 5 minutes on the bottom, as they say.

Remove and place on a wire tray to cool. Wait at least 30 minutes before munching down.


You should then have a nice light crumbly bread with a crunchy crust and a nutty flavor.

Best with butter and jam or cheese. You should try it. It only takes a few minutes to prepare and beats anything you can get in any shop.