How to Make Irish Soda Bread
For amateur and pro bakers alike, there's no recipe more appropriate for St. Patrick's Day than Irish Soda bread. Irish heritage optional. I'll walk you through how to make our most popular Irish soda bread recipe — with plenty of how-to tips along the way — and give you variations to try.
Irish soda bread is one of those unicorn recipes that's hard to mess up and can withstand seemingly countless variations. While professionals will surely put a special flourish on their loaf, Irish soda bread is excellent for novices since there's no intimidating yeast, no rising, practically no kneading, and no fancy shaping to worry about. Just mix, quickly knead, dump onto a baking sheet or cast iron pan, and bake.
Depending on the recipe, the result might be more or less bread-like in texture, or it might be more akin to scones or biscuits. While it won't be sandwich bread, it'll be darn good slathered with butter. Here's the low-down on this quintessential St. Patrick's Day recipe along with one of our favorite recipes plus a few others, and some tips and tricks to help you achieve soda bread perfection.
What's the Story Behind Irish Soda Bread?
At this point it's widely recognized that Indigenous peoples of the Americas were the first to use something like baking soda to leaven their bread in lieu of yeast. They used pearl ash (made from a solution of burnt ash and water that was cooked down until it became a baking soda-like powder), and in the mid-1800s there was enough travel between Ireland and the US happening that the Irish adapted this method back home with the newly available bicarbonate soda—i.e., baking soda.
The technique was well suited for Irish soft wheat flour, which didn't produce enough gluten to rise properly when combined with yeast. Bicarbonate soda was cheap and plentiful, and many Irish families grew wheat and had cows (and thus could make buttermilk — or, more commonly in the 19th century, sour milk). Most families didn't have their own oven but could bake the bread in a cast iron Dutch oven over a fire. Using baking soda produced a denser bread than one made with yeast, but it got the job done and provided an easy, affordable, accessible, nutritious everyday bread, and as such became commonplace throughout Ireland. Irish immigrants then brought the recipe with them to America, and Irish-Americans put their own touches on the recipe. Today, soda bread is a quintessential Irish recipe and has become a beloved (and delicious) St. Patrick's Day tradition.
How Does Irish Soda Bread Rise Without Yeast?
Get ready to nerd out. Though most bread relies on yeast to rise, Irish soda bread utilizes baking soda. For this reason, the reality is that Irish soda bread is much closer to a quick bread or scone than a loaf of bread. It rises thanks to a process called chemical leavening, in which the baking soda (a base) reacts when it's mixed with something acidic like buttermilk to produce carbon dioxide. While it's baking, the trapped carbon dioxide gas in the dough (don't worry, it's not toxic) tries to escape and thus makes the dough rise slightly. It's kitchen science magic!
How to Make Irish Soda Bread
Irish Soda Bread, recipe by Penguin Lady
Ready to get baking? This recipe for Irish soda bread is one of the most made, best-reviewed soda bread recipes on Allrecipes — and for good reason. Reviewer MMEMEIS raves, "This Irish soda bread beat out our family recipe that was used for decades." Try it and see for yourself, and see below for some tips and variations.
½ cup white sugar
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
3 cups raisins (I used 2 cups currants)
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1¼ cups buttermilk
1 cup sour cream
1. Preheat oven to 350F (175C). Grease a 9-inch round cast iron skillet or a 9-inch round baking or cake pan.
2. In a mixing bowl, combine flour (reserving 1 tablespoon), sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, raisins (or currants), and caraway seeds. In a small bowl, blend eggs, buttermilk and sour cream. Stir the liquid mixture into flour mixture just until flour is moistened. Knead dough in bowl about 10 to 12 strokes. Dough will be sticky. Place the dough in the prepared skillet or pan and pat down. Cut a 4x¾-inch deep slit in the top of the bread. Dust with reserved flour.
3. Bake in the preheated oven for 65 to 75 minutes. Let cool and turn bread onto a wire rack.
Irish Soda Bread Baking Tips and Variations
Sticky dough. The recipe says that the dough will be sticky — but it is really sticky. So sticky that it's a little hard to knead; I didn't get in a full 10 strokes and it still turned out great, so never fear. Some reviewers said they skipped this step entirely and it was fine; many noted that they were nervous about the consistency but that it baked up perfectly.
Raisins or currants. While the recipe calls for 3 cups of raisins, I followed the lead of many reviewers and cut it down to 2 cups, which seemed like plenty. I also used currants instead of raisins, which was delicious. Some folks used just 1 cup, and some cut them out entirely. Others successfully substituted dried cranberries, chopped dried apricots, or a mix of dried fruit.
Need for seeds. Caraway seeds give this a rich flavor that is a nice savory counterpoint to the sweet currants or raisins. But, if caraway isn't your thing (think of the flavor of rye bread), then leave it out (many reviewers did so and reported that it was still delicious).
Flour power. A few reviewers took issue with the tablespoon of flour sprinkled over the loaf before it is baked, but this is part of what gives it that pretty bakery look. That being said, I only used about 1 teaspoon flour on top and thought that was enough.
Skillet vs. Pan vs. Sheet. Penguin Lady says to bake this in a cast iron pan (that's what I did) or a cake pan, but you can also bake it on a parchment-lined baking sheet if that's what you have handy. This dense bread won't lose its shape.
X marks the spot. Irish soda bread traditionally has a big X sliced into the top, but this is more a matter of aesthetics and tradition than necessity (some say it's meant to look like a cross to either ward off the devil or bless the bread, while others like to say it lets out any fairies that might be trapped in the dough). So, if you have trouble getting a perfect cross cut into it, don't sweat it. Reviewer M Unit suggests dipping your knife in flour before making your X for a clean cut.
Buttermilk substitution. If you don't have buttermilk, you can make your own substitute: put 1 tablespoon plus ¾ teaspoon lemon juice or vinegar into a measuring cup then pour in milk (anything from skim to whole will work) until it reaches 1¼ cups. Mix it together and you've got your buttermilk replacement (the acid from the lemon juice is enough to activate the baking soda).
Lower the sugar. For those who are wary of the sugar, reviewer Despina Belle-Isle reports that having made it at various times with regular sugar and Splenda, she didn't find much change in taste when using the sugar substitute.
Lower the fat. To make this recipe low fat, numerous reviewers said they used low fat sour cream with great success. Motherbird substituted plain yogurt, which she said also worked well.
Saving leftovers. Irish soda bread is at its absolute best when it is fresh out of the oven, preferably slathered with good butter. If you have any left the next day, lightly toast a slice before enjoying or, for a real treat, do as Nikki did and use it to make French toast. Or, if you know you won't eat it all on day one, freeze it. I like to wrap slices in plastic wrap then put in a freezer bag so I can pull out one at a time whenever a craving strikes. Stick it in the toaster and enjoy some nearly fresh baked goodness.
More Irish Soda Bread Recipes to Try
While Penguin Lady's Irish soda bread recipe is spot on, some would argue that it's not "authentic" and is instead an Irish-American variation known as spotted dog soda bread. At this point I would argue that it's authentically Irish-American, but if you want to try your hand at the super simple version we've got you covered. Or, want it gluten free, or perhaps in muffin form? Here are some other great versions to try.
If you want to see what real deal, no-frills Irish soda bread recipe tastes like, then this recipe by barry is just the ticket. It calls for just four ingredients: flour, salt, baking soda, and buttermilk. Reviewer mul exclaims, "finally someone actually knows that Irish bread does NOT contain raisins or caraway or butter; perfect recipe." And CINJOY4 says, "wonderful flavor and texture for such a simple recipe. I've tried several Irish soda bread recipes and this has trumped them all."
As recipe author joaniecny says, "one bowl, mix, bake for 20 minutes, and you have tasty muffins!" It doesn't get much better than that. This portable, shareable rendition of Irish soda bread is a keeper. As lutzflcat reviews, "This muffin is the best of savory and sweet, the raisin-caraway seed combo is a winner, it's tender, and the texture is just firm enough, but not dense. And OMG, are they quick and easy to make."
If a gluten intolerance or lifestyle choice has had you missing out on your yearly Irish soda bread binge, ChristinaBunny has come up with a crowd-pleasing solution: she uses gluten free rice and tapioca flour in place of all-purpose or whole wheat flour. Reviewer misspotatohed raves, "This recipe is fabulous. It was easy to make and tastes awesome. You wouldn't even know it was gluten free." Many reviewers did note that their bread was done much quicker than the recipe said.
For a soda bread that is more like a quick bread in texture, try out this recipe by Karin Christian, originally publiched in Allrecipes Magazine. Her recipe (which is baked in a loaf pan) includes an egg, melted butter, and baking powder (in addition to baking soda), which gives it a more cake-like taste and feel. Many reviewers noted that if you've tried Irish soda bread in the past and not been the biggest fan, then this version might be for you (it's definitely not for the purists).