As I may have mentioned once or twice…or so… I love to make bread. I think that it’s relaxing and rewarding and wholesome, and is a valuable skill if you’re trying to eat a healthy and minimally processed diet. Baking leavened bread, however takes forethought. If you’re using yeast your loaf will generally need to be proved twice for a combined total of about four or five hours plus the time making and baking it. Sourdough is an even longer undertaking as, if you don’t have a starter on the go, it will take about five days to establish, and then the proving time is usually about twice as long as with yeast leavened bread. So what if you haven’t prepared but have a bread emergency (such as soup without any bread for dipping or brunch without bread to soak up your egg yolk…gasp!)?
The answer is soda bread.
Soda bread is a moist and crumbly quick bread that is ridiculously simple to make. All it requires is flour, baking soda, buttermilk and a bit of salt, and it takes about 40 minutes from the time that it first occurs to you to the time you’re taking your warm loaf from the oven. In fact, the secret to making good soda bread is to work it as little as you possibly can so that the gluten in the flour doesn’t develop, so it’s inherently speedy!
It’ also a really versatile bread. You can use various flours to achieve a good result, and could add pretty much any fillings or flavourings that you want to it. It’s lovely with cheese or herbs or dried fruit mixed through it, but really you could let your imagination run pretty wild and see what you can come up with.
A note on buttermilk, as it’s one of the key ingredients. When I first heard about buttermilk I assumed, because of its name, that it was a dairy product akin to cream in its fat content. I think this misconception may be a common one. Traditional buttermilk is actually the liquid leftover from churning butter from cream, and is itself virtually fat free. The process of separating the liquid in this manner causes fermentation, which means that not only is buttermilk very low in fat, it’s also naturally full of probiotics. All in all it’s an excellent and healthy ingredient to use and can be added to all sorts of things. It’s lovely in sauces and makes delicious sorbet. In soda bread it’s used because, as an acid, it reacts to the alkalinity of the baking soda which causes the rise in the dough. If you don’t have any you can substitute it for plain yogurt, or use normal milk with a Tbsp of lemon juice stirred through it and left to sour for five minutes. You can even use milk that’s gone a bit sour in the fridge.
Alright, back to the soda bread. The process for making it is as follows:
- Measure out the dry ingredients into a large bowl and give them a stir to make sure they’re well combined. If your adding fillings I’d suggest that you add them at this stage so that you can work them through evenly before the liquid is added to the mix, which will help to keep the handling of the dough to a minimum.
- Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the buttermilk, then gently work it into a dough. I prefer to do this with my fingers carefully squashing it together. You want the dough to just come together. It will be quite sticky and gloopy.
- Turn the dough out onto a well floured surface and flour the top of it. Gently pat it into a ball without kneading it, and then flatten it out very slightly. With a sharp knife or dough scraper cut an X into the ball cutting nearly the whole way through to the bottom. This will give it its characteristic circular shape with four distinct sections, and will also help it to bake more evenly.
- Place it on a baking sheet lined with parchment and bake it for about 30 minutes, until cooked through.
For the recipe below I went for whole wheat flour combined with some of my favourite flavours; spinach, fresh basil and sun dried tomatoes, but really the sky’s the limit with soda bread, try adding your favourites to it and see what you can create.
That’s it, how to make soda bread! Quick, simple, and a delicious, filling addition to any meal!
- 100g frozen spinach (or fresh if you prefer)
- A handful of fresh basil, trimmed and chopped
- 5 sun dried tomatoes (dry packed, not in oil), chopped
- 500g whole wheat flour
- 1 tsp baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)
- 1 tsp salt flakes
- 400mL buttermilk
- Pre heat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius and line a baking tray with baking parchment.
- Defrost the spinach (if using frozen)and squeeze as much water from it as you can, and then chop it quite finely. Stir it in with the basil and sun dried tomatoes and set aside.
- In a large bowl combine the flour, baking soda and salt, and give it a stir. Add the spinach, basil and sun dried tomatoes and stir again until evenly distributed.
- Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour the buttermilk into it. Carefully work the buttermilk into the flour just bringing it together to form a sticky dough.
- Turn the dough out onto a well floured surface and flour the top of the dough well too. Handling the dough as little as possible gently pat it into a ball and flatten it out slightly. Transfer it carefully to the prepared baking tray and with a sharp knife or dough scraper cut an X into the ball cutting nearly all the way through.
- Place the loaf in the oven and leave to bake for about 30 minutes, until crisp on the outside and sounds slightly hollow when you tap on the bottom.
- Leave to cool on a wire rack.