Irish Soda Bread History
Soda bread is most associated with the Irish but it was the American Indians who first used pearl ash (a form of baking soda) to make bread rise instead of yeast.
It was first made in Ireland around 1940 when baking soda became readily available in the country. The Irish rediscovered this process and made using baking soda as a leavening agent more prevalent.
At that time, Ireland was a poor country and ingredients were scare. They made food with ingredients that were cheap and available. Traditional soda bread contains flour, salt, sour milk (nowadays buttermilk) and baking soda. The texture of soda bread is unlike regular bread. It's more like a dense cake than bread due to the reaction of the baking soda with buttermilk.
Using baking soda rather than yeast meant that it could be easily prepared and didn't need exact baking temperatures to rise. Originally it was cooked in iron pots over hearths which helped give Irish soda bread the texture and taste it's known for (dense with a hard crust).
Depending on what part of Ireland you lived in, the shape of soda bread is different.
Northern regions divide the dough into four flattened discs, press into a triangle shape, and cook on a griddle. Southern regions bake the bread in a round loaf with a cross on top. The myth behind the cross is that it wards off evil and protects the household. In reality, the cross helps to allow heat into the center part of the bread when cooking.
Over the years, raisins, sugar and caraway seeds have been added to the recipe. Traditionalists will say that the addition of ingredients makes it a dish called Spotted Dog instead of Irish soda bread.
Whether it's made in the more current traditional way with raisins or like a purist with just the 4 original ingredients, Irish soda bread is a delicious quick bread any cook can prepare. This St. Patrick's Day, try one of these Blue Ribbon Irish soda bread recipes. Smeared with butter, it's fantastic alongside corned beef and cabbage or with a cup of tea for dessert.