The Fascinating Story of Irish Brown Bread (+ Recipe Inside)

Irish Brown Bread, also known as Wheaten Bread, Brown Soda Bread or just Brown Bread, is a real staple of Irish cuisine. A loaf of Irish brown bread, butter, jam and a pot of tea is considered by many to be the perfect combination in a traditional Irish home.

Traditional Irish Brown Bread

In Irish country kitchens, the preparation of Irish brown bread was a common sight throughout history, and especially after the 19th century. The recipe itself has many variations, but the traditional ingredients were just flour, salt, buttermilk and sodium bicarbonate.

This simplicity gave the bread a unique spot in the Irish home, and through history it became a real staple of Irish cuisine and one of the finest types of bread in the world. But it still begs the question…

Why has Irish Brown Bread gained such popularity in Ireland?

There are various historical and factual reasons that the Irish brown bread became so popular.

Firstly, where many other cultures were using yeast in their bread, Irish climate had a way of producing wheat flour that was low in protein, and therefore “soft”, which meant that it did not work well with yeast.

Irish flour is soft, so it doesn’t work well with yeast

But there is another important factor to take into account. This type of bread gained real popularity in the 19th century. This was a difficult time for the Irish people, and it turned out that sodium bicarbonate was a more affordable rising agent.

The method of baking it allowed for versatility in how it was served – from sweet or savory additions to everyday meals, to special occasion brown bread.

Irish Brown Bread with Butter – an everyday Irish treat

Since Irish brown bread became so ingrained as a staple of Irish cuisine, it naturally developed its own traditions and folklore, often being decorated with a cross cut into the dough before baking.

In Irish folklore, this is done to allow fairies to escape the bread, while some people believe that this cross is a blessing warding off mischievous spirits and prevent them from burning the bread in the oven.

Irish Brown Bread with the traditional Cross design

The Irish brown bread is also most often round. This is because it is traditionally made in a soda pot, known in the US and Europe as a Dutch Oven.

Soda Pot or Dutch Oven

The soda pot has quite a significance in Ireland – because peat was a popular fuel source, and because of the structure of Irish flour, bread was baked slowly over a peat fire. Using a crane, the soda pot was lowered until it sat right in the peat.

Peat embers were also pulled on top of the soda pot for the last 10 or 15 minutes of baking. This helped bake the bread to perfection, while the lid of the pot kept the moisture in – delivering a perfectly baked smoky moist bread.

Baking in a soda pot over a fire

The Deliciously Authentic Soda Bread Recipe

They say that there are as many soda bread recipes in Ireland as there are mammies, but we have still prepared a basic recipe that will be easy to make, and easy to put your own stamp onto.

General guidelines:

– Irish brown bread needs to be made with a light touch, to prevent it from being heavy and doughy – use only your fingers to mix the dough

– We recommend that you first try the basic recipe before playing with adding extra ingredients

– Do not use hard or bread flour – if you can, use real Irish flour, which is soft and will give you the flavour you’re looking for

– Do not use homogenised buttermilk or ordinary milk – high acid content is needed for the bread to rise

– No kneading is required in making this bread

– Work quickly – as soon as the dough is shaped, whip it into the oven to get a nice rise

Work quickly to make the perfect Irish brown bread

What you’ll need:

  • 4.5 cups wholemeal flour
  • 2 cups Irish white flour
  • 2 teaspoons bread soda (baking soda)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2.5 cups buttermilk

Making Irish Brown Bread

  • Preheat your oven to 200C/400F/Gas Mark 6.
  • Sieve and mix the flour, soda and salt together in a bowl.
  • Make a well in the mixture and add the buttermilk.
  • Mix lightly with your fingers – the dough should easily form a soft ball and should not be too sticky.
  • Put the dough into a loaf tin and bake for 40 minutes.
  • Remove the brad from the oven and tap the bottom – if it sounds hollow, it’s done. If not, put into the oven for another 5-10 minutes.
  • Wrap in a clean tea towel while cooling – this will keep the crust soft.
  • Serve with Irish butter, jam, and traditional Irish tea.

Delicious Irish Brown Bread

Enjoy the deliciousness!

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  1. Helen O Leary

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