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updated: 3/14/2012 1:37 PM

Why the Irish use baking soda in their bread

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  • Enjoy Irish soda bread for St. Patrick's Day.

      Enjoy Irish soda bread for St. Patrick's Day.
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Editor's note: Annie Overboe is taking some time off. The column originally appeared in March 2002.

Growing up in an Irish family, you can imagine that I have enjoyed more than my fair share of corned beef, cabbage and soda bread over the years. However, my Irish grandmother never set foot in a kitchen, even to bake.

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The floured hands in the family belonged to my Austrian grandmother, who wasn't too keen on trying her luck with Irish soda bread. So it was my Aunt Dolly who introduced me to Irish cooking and soda bread.

Yet years later this Irish lass found herself in somewhat of an embarrassing spot of not knowing the story behind soda bread. The time had come to redeem myself.

Order soda bread in Ireland and you will enjoy a plain loaf with a slight tangy edge. Traditionally, Irish bakers don't embellish their daily bread with dried fruits, but for tea they serve spotted dog, a loaf studded with raisins or currants. Other variations include Treacle bread made with dark molasses and brown soda bread baked with whole-wheat flour and oatmeal.

For the most part, the Irish serve their soda bread with just a smear of butter.

While I paged though traditional soda bread recipes, an observation began to come to light. Irish cooks used baking soda, not yeast, to leaven the bread. Hmm.

The Emerald Isle gets its famous color from a climate that offers a small range of temperature changes. But without the extreme heat and cold, hard winter wheats that are used to make bread flour do not grow. Soft wheats flourish, but do not work well with a yeast leavener. This predicament left Irish bakers with only one choice to bake their daily bread: Use a chemical leavener in the dough.

Much like with a cake, baking soda reacts with the buttermilk, creating carbon dioxide gas that lifts the dough.

Another challenge facing many Irish families was the lack of firewood. Glowing turf or heated peat sods were used in the hearths, with soda bread baked in a three-legged iron pot often called a bastable oven. Using chains, bakers lowered hot sod on top of the pot to ensure even baking. The bread baked quickly and the easy recipe yielded a reliable hot loaf. Once again, bakers rose to the challenge.

I especially enjoy baking soda bread and cherish the memories that come with every bite. It had been far too long since a loaf came from my oven.

Try this recipe and share a taste of Irish heritage with your family and friends on St Patrick's Day.

Annie Overboe, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, lives in Villa Park. Write to her at food@dailyherald.com.

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