Following is a family recipe for the best Irish soda bread and information on soft and hard flour, as well as details on what happens to gluten in the the kneading process.
There are two varieties of wheat flour: soft and hard. This recipe uses the soft whole wheat pastry flour, with low-gluten content; cake flour, which is the other soft flour, is even lower in this mixture of plant proteins. Hard, all-purpose, or bread flour is the other variety, which is high in gluten.
All wheat flour contains two proteins, gliadin and glutenin, which combined form the gluten. When dough is initially mixed, these proteins are mangled and knotted together in a relatively unorderly fashion. Kneading lines these up; bonds are developed between neighbors; thus, gluten chains form, creating the surrounding substance within which the dough can develop. In this way strength and structure are established, which trap gases and allow the dough to rise; this process is critical in producing a good loaf of yeast bread.
Unlike yeast bread, such manipulative action is minimal in its soda counterpart, providing for little gluten development; its soft flour, being comparatively low in these proteins, produces a quick bread with its own appeal, which is a fine, tender crumb. Being fast to prepare, it must be eaten with haste as well, as it becomes stale swiftly.
Irish soda bread has simplicity and a basic composition; it is leavened with the rapid-acting chemical baking soda, and as it has been said, brief mixing minimizes its gluten development. This luscious loaf may be enhanced by adding either raisins or currants (see Mor Monsen’s Kaker, 2017/11/27, for the history of currants).
It is an understatement to say that my mother Pat, who now resides in heaven, loved her Irish heritage while sojourning on earth: I grew up, during every March, with a month’s worth of corned beef and cabbage. On St. Patrick’s Day itself, sometimes there were scrambled eggs colored with green food dye, or toilet bowl water tinted likewise, and always a mandatory wearing-of-the-green. (She would have to dash in the bathroom to revive the toilet water following each use.)
Mom will always be remembered by all, for her passion for green; year-round she favored this color in her clothing, home decorations, and above all God’s splendid paintings in nature.
I am honoring her during her month, by sharing our family’s recipes for Irish Soda Bread and of course, corn beef and cabbage, which will be next week’s entry. Irish soda bread is a quick bread, traditionally made without fat; it generally calls for soft flour-made from soft winter wheat berries-which is marketed as whole wheat pastry flour.
Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), pp. 521-523, 537-538, 549-550.
Irish Soda Bread Yields: 10-12 servings. Total prep time: 45-55 min/ active prep time: 20 min/ baking time: 25-35 min.
3/4 cup milk (Alternative milks will do, or may purchase buttermilk.)
8 squirts from plastic lemon ball, for souring milk
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour (Bob’s Red Mill flour is high quality; may grind 1 1/3 cup organic soft winter wheat berries, to make 2 cups fresh flour.)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3 tbsp sugar (Organic is best; available at Trader Joe’s, or more inexpensively, in a 10-lb package at Costco.)
4 tbsp butter, softened
1/2 cup raisins or currants (Currants available in bulk at upscale grocers, such as the national chain New Season’s.)
Spray oil (Pam coconut spray oil is ideal; our local Winco brand, however, is far cheaper.)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- If grinding fresh flour, begin to do so now with 1 1/3 c soft winter white wheat berries; wait to preheat oven with this option.
- Sour milk by placing it in a medium bowl, squeezing about 8 squirts from lemon ball over surface; set aside.
- In a large bowl blend flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and sugar, with a fork.
- Cut 3 tbsp softened butter into flour mixture, until mixture is mealy and butter is well incorporated (see above photo).
Stir in soured milk and raisins or currants. Knead dough gently for 1 minute, flouring counter and hands to keep dough from sticking. See photo. (Note: if grinding flour fresh, be sure to let dough sit in bowl, covered, for 45 minutes before kneading, to absorb excess moisture present in the coarser fresh-grind.)
- Form into a round loaf and place on a cookie sheet sprayed with oil. With a sharp knife, cut an X on top of loaf about 1/2-inch deep. Optional: dot with softened butter (see photo below).
- Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until golden brown and there is a hollow sound when tapped on bottom; see top photo. Cool on rack.
This is best served with imported Irish Kerrygold butter-this treat is available many places, but the best buy is at Costco, when in stock.