St. Paddy’s Traditions: Irish Soda Bread

The bread dates back centuries and is a staple of many St. Patrick’s Day dinners.

St. Patrick’s Day is right around the corner, which means many Irish families (and many not-so-Irish families) are preparing their own Irish dinners. Usually this includes some variation of corned beef and cabbage, and the family’s recipe for Irish soda bread.

The tradition of Irish soda bread has evolved over the years, and much like potatoes, the Irish did not actually invent the dish, but certainly adopted and made it their own.

Today, it can be bought at Anne Andrus’ Honey & Rye Bakehouse in St. Louis Park, but as Andrus points out, “It used to be the poor man’s bread. Everybody had flour and salt.”

Yeast, traditionally used to create light and airy breads, was hard to come by in the 1800s. Baking soda, however, was prevalent and when mixed with acid in sour milk or buttermilk created a lightness that mimicked yeast-based breads. Original recipes were simply wheat flour, soda, sour milk and salt—ingredients found in every Irish kitchen. The bread became popular not only for its low price but for its claim in aiding digestion.

While there's something to be said for making the same dish as your ancestors, it’s also OK to have some fun with the recipe. Traditional add-ins include caraway seeds and raisins, but at Honey & Rye, they step it up a few notches.

“We add a little sugar, egg, and we add orange zest and currant,” Andrus says, plus an egg wash for a golden finish. “It’s simple,” she says, but for customers who aren’t familiar with the bread, “people are surprised, because it’s really more like a scone.”

The added egg is “nontraditional, but it definitely adds some liquid” to keep the bread moist, she says. While the dough may seem simple to make, “it doesn’t take much to make it hard,” Andrus says. If you’ve made it yourself, you might be familiar with the dry, hard crumble that it can become.

To keep that from happening, Honey & Rye takes a hint from the bread it resembles. “We treat ours like a scone dough. We’re very careful not to overmix it.”

First the dry ingredients are mixed, she says, and then they mix in chunks of very cold butter—“just like a pie crust,” she says, “until the butter is pea-sized.” Next come the liquids—buttermilk and egg; then orange zest—“just until it comes together.”

“People really want to work [the dough],” Andrus says, but that’s what turns soda bread into a brick. “The uglier the dough, the better it will taste. You don’t want it to be beautiful and cohesive. You want rougher spots.”

After baking, Andrus has a favorite way to serve the bread: “Like anything, I like butter on it,” she says. “Especially if it’s nice and fresh, just breaking a hunk of it off—maybe add some jam.”

If you want the bread without the worry of overmixing, Honey & Rye sells theirs all month long, Andrus says, “but it doesn’t hurt to call ahead.”