What Is Soda Bread and Why Is It Called That?

My dad’s side of the family is 100% Irish, so I grew up with a lot of traditional Irish (or, more specifically, Irish-American) foods. A dinner of ham, cabbage, and potatoes was a monthly occurrence, not just saved for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. And I was shocked to learn that not everyone knew the delights of Irish Potato candy. Even more controversial to me: Not everyone likes Irish soda bread. I love the stuff and I am here to sing its praises. 

Caveat: My experience is with the Irish-American version of soda bread which, I imagine, can be quite different from the traditional Irish versions. If an Irish citizen has stumbled upon this article and feels I have misrepresented their delicious bread, please allow me some grace.

What is soda bread?

Soda bread is a type of quick bread, meaning that it doesn’t use yeast as a leavening agent. Instead, it uses a combination of baking soda and buttermilk. The lactic acid in the buttermilk reacts with the baking soda, creating carbon dioxide bubbles that make the bread rise. One of the benefits of a bread like this is that the chemical reaction starts immediately, meaning it requires very little time to knead or proof. 

The soda bread of today is most commonly associated with Ireland. Prior to the 19th century, the country didn’t have access to the kind of wheat that interacts well with yeast, meaning that many of their breads were flatbreads. In 1801, sodium bicarbonate—baking soda—was developed and it soon became commercially available. This, quite literally, upped the Irish bread game.

Why is it called soda bread?

Soda bread is called soda bread because of the baking soda in the bread.

What does Irish soda bread taste like?

Not all Irish soda breads are made the same way. The loaf itself is a little more dense than yeasted bread, with a hard, crusty interior and soft center. In many ways it resembles a scone, another example of a baked good that doesn’t use yeast. It has a similar flavor to a scone, thanks to the baking soda. 

Though it can be made plain, soda bread’s flavor is usually defined by what is added to it. Caraway seeds are a very common soda bread ingredient. They pack a pretty powerful punch of spicy anise flavor and aroma that may turn some people off. But that is usually balanced with the second most common ingredient: raisins. This is the general baseline for most loaves.

Is Irish soda bread sweet?

There are savory and sweet versions of soda bread that veer from tradition. For the former, herbs, cheese, garlic, and even bacon can be added. For the latter, a healthy sprinkle of coarse decorator sugar on the top makes the bread feel almost like dessert (this is a personal favorite of mine).

How do you eat Irish soda bread?

The simple pleasure of a hunk of Irish soda bread smeared with butter (really good butter like Irish butter) is something that gives me so much joy, bringing back memories of family dinners at my grandparents’ home. To me, that is the purest way to enjoy it.

It can also be used as a replacement for scones, muffins, or bagels, topped with marmalade, apple butter, or clotted cream. Savory versions of the bread are excellent when dipped into soups or stews.

About the Author

Luke Field

Luke Field is a writer and actor originally from Philadelphia. He was the former Head Writer of branded content at CollegeHumor and was also a contributing writer and actor to the CollegeHumor Originals cast. He has extensive improv and sketch stage experience, performing both at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and with their Touring Company. In addition to writing, he also works as a Story Producer, most recently on season 4 of Accident, Suicide, or Murder on Oxygen. Keep your eyes peeled for his brief but impactful appearance as Kevin, the screaming security guard, in the upcoming feature The Disruptors, directed by Adam Frucci.

Thoughts? Questions? Complete disagreement? Leave a comment!

Your thoughts.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *