“For me, soda bread is warmth and comfort,” says Gillian Fitzgerald. “It can be as elevated or simple as you want it to be. You can have your smoked salmon and your super-fancy cheese plate, or you can just toast it and smother it in butter.” For Fitzgerald, the co-owner of Casements, an Irish bar in San Francisco’s Mission District, soda bread is also a tender, tangy fixture of her menu and a link to her family back in Ireland, where she was born and raised.
The bread that Fitzgerald serves at the bar is made from her Granny Reynolds’s recipe. Originally, it was her family’s daily bread: Fitzgerald’s mother grew up on a farm with five brothers, and her grandmother baked two to three loaves “every day of her life,” rising before dawn to get that bicarbonate bubbling before breakfast. Now, every member of the family has a slightly different spin on it, with Fitzgerald’s father and sisters quibbling about flour ratios and who does it best.
Most sources agree that Irish soda bread originally rose in the 1830s, when baking soda reached the British Isles. Unlike yeasted breads, soda bread doesn’t require any kneading, rising, or tending to starters; it gets its tender crumb and tangy flavor from the reaction between baking soda and an acid like sour milk or buttermilk. So even amateur bakers who bailed on sourdough early in the pandemic can have fun with it.
Americans tend to reach for soda bread recipes around Saint Patrick’s Day, but there’s no time limit on excellent toast. And in its purest form — flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk — soda bread relies on pantry staples that many home cooks already have on hand.
Where many American recipes favor all-purpose flour and indulgences like extra butter and a spoonful of sugar, Granny Reynolds’s version uses half whole-wheat flour, an egg, and a knob of butter, which aren’t always included in more traditional soda bread recipes. She also never measured her ingredients, doing it all by feel. But it’s more about the technique, Fitzgerald explains; her granny’s was to make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, pour in the wet ingredients, and then swiftly and gently pull in the sides. Darina Allen, founder of Ballymaloe Cookery School (“The myth and legend!” Fitzgerald says. “The Martha Stewart of Ireland!”) actually does the reverse, clawing from the inside out. No matter which way you go, be careful not to overwork the dough, which can get tight and tough. Also, your hand will surely be a sticky mess. This is part of the fun; just wash your hands and dust them off with a little flour before turning out the dough and gingerly patting it into a round.
At this point, some Irish cooks ward off old superstitions: Fitzgerald marks the dough in the shape of a cross “to keep the devil away,” while Allen pricks the dough in each quadrant to, as she has explained it, “let the fairies out.”
For serving, “the bread should be hot, the butter should be cold,” Fitzgerald insists. She doesn’t mean pale American butter, either, but smooth, ultra-yellow Irish butter; if you can’t get home to the farm, Kerrygold will do just fine. When her granddaughters came to visit, Granny Reynolds would put on the kettle for tea and serve fresh soda bread with gooseberry jam from up or down the road. But this is daily bread, and whether it’s hexed by fairies or not, it’s equally enchanting for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Granny Reynolds’s Soda Bread
Makes 1 large loaf
Casements Bar in San Francisco serves this tender and tangy soda bread, based on a family recipe from co-owner Gillian Fitzgerald. Granny Reynolds never measured her sour milk or knobs of butter, but good soda bread is more technique than ingredients, pulling the wet and dry ingredients together in a few swift strokes, without overworking the dough. Cut with a cross and baked until golden, it’s equally delicious topped with butter and jam for breakfast or dipped into stew for supper.
1⅔ cups (8 ounces/225 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more
1⅔ cups (8 ounces/225 grams) whole-wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 large egg
1½ cups (12 fluid ounces/375 milliliters) low-fat buttermilk
1 tablespoon (½ ounce/15 grams) butter, chilled (Fitzgerald recommends Kerrygold salted Irish butter)
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Generously dust a sheet pan and work surface with all-purpose flour.
Step 2: In a mixing bowl, combine the all-purpose and whole-wheat flours. Add the baking powder, baking soda, and salt and stir to combine. In a separate bowl, beat together the egg and buttermilk until smooth.
Step 3: Add the butter to the flour mixture and gently rub into the flour with your fingertips, until about the size of peas. Create a well in the middle of the flour mixture.
Step 4: Pour half of the buttermilk mixture into the well, and start to gently scoop the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients to combine. Unlike most bread, the less you knead this, the better. Add the remaining buttermilk and continue to scoop until just combined. The mixture should be soft and shaggy, but if it’s too sticky, add another ¼ cup all-purpose flour.
Step 5: Wash and dry your hands and dust them with flour. Turn out the dough on the generously floured work surface. Knead lightly in a circular motion, just a few folds, to create a wide, round loaf. Transfer the loaf to the prepared pan. With a sharp knife, score the top of the loaf in the shape of a cross; the cuts should be about an inch deep.
Step 6: Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes to set the crust. Reduce the heat to 375 degrees, then continue to bake until the loaf starts to turn golden, 30 minutes. Flip upside-down and continue to bake until the loaf is golden and it sounds hollow when tapped, 5 to 10 minutes longer. Transfer to a rack and let cool slightly.
Slice the soda bread, spread the slices with butter, and serve warm.
Celeste Noche is a photographer in Portland, Oregon
Recipe tested by Deena Prichep