Sourdough Irish soda bread

You’re kidding, you say! You say, you know, don’t you that soda bread means this is a quick bread, not a yeast bread? You think I’m missing something in my bread education.

OK, fine, but I can try something different, can’t I? A little fusion approach?


I hadn’t even thought of making soda bread even though we’ve done it before. In fact I didn’t realize it was St. Patrick’s Day. And I already had a plan for a long-ferment English muffin experiment, on Wednesday (more on that another time). Then when I found the slow cooker, a recipe and todo list, and a corned beef on the counter when I got up, well after my wife left, duh, I figured out today was the day for Irish bread.

OK, fine. We have a good recipe but I figured I could look for something better. And thanks to all of you, especially on that shared your experience. I found a significant diversity in approaches with at most a couple of things in common: a) the breads used some sort of flour (I literally cannot understand the concept of gluten-free white flour – from what grain? is that even possible, or did that person get sold a bill of goods) and used some sort of liquid (let the ales flow, or at least buttermilk) and baking soda. In other words everyone else made this as a quick bread but used many different recipes. So I blended a few and improvised.

I did a little cutting and pasting to decide what route I’d take. No, I didn’t want all whole wheat flour (I know, it’s magic and white flour is evil, but I like taste) and I actually did want some whole grains (btw, folks whole wheat != whole grains) and I wanted to use the sourdough poolish I had already made and was now 18 hours into his room temperature ferment. I did decide to abandon white sugar (not because it’s evil or toxic, it’s too cloying) and went with a mixture of turbinado and barley malt. IOW, I was out to max out the flavor within the framework of the traditional (hard to say exactly what that is) Irish soda bread.

So, from past experience with Peter Reinhart I knew I had to get cracking on a soaker and even then I wouldn’t really have enough time. You really can’t just dump whole wheat flour and/or any whole grains in your dough. They take a really long time to hydrate properly and you won’t get the taste without Reinhart’s soaker approach. But time was short, so I threw in 1.5c of whole wheat and 0.5c of oak flakes with the 1.5c of buttermilk that most of the recipes use and at least gave that two hours to get acquainted. At the last instant I recalled frequent use of caraway in some recipes so I tossed in a couple of teaspoons to soften in the soaker. I don’t normally use caraway and had no clue that would turn out to definitely be excessive.

Meanwhile my poolish was bubbling nicely (made Sunday night with my sourdough culture, using some as part of its weekly refresh. My starter culture is 1:1 (by volume) high protein white flour and water, so I pushed the poolish (by feel, more than measurement, closer to 1.5:1, a bit thicker than batter, but definitely thinner than any dough). And I don’t like just raisins so I used half-and-half golden raisins (a bit old and a little stale, but OK) and regular raisins. Normally we’d soak these for flours in some Irish whiskey but I didn’t have any so I used the odd choice of kirschwasser instead (cherry flavor isn’t too far from raisins, besides I discarded the liquid part of that soak).

So about two hours after deciding to even try this I was ready to finish it up. I mixed the rest of the liquids/gloopy stuff (i.e. the soaker and the poolish). I wasn’t sure I thought it was good idea but I followed one recipe and used two eggs. I’m not crazy about eggs in bread (diary is OK, either buttermilk or yogurt) but I figured this would act both for a bit of leavening as well as some binder (usually our “traditional” soda bread is a little fragile and too crumbly for good slices). So the eggs and butter plus the goopies maxed out the liquid.

I judged I need about another 1.5c of flour and decided to use all purpose rather than high protein so I wouldn’t get traditional gluten structure. I mixed the other dries in their, using both soda and powder (there is a reason for this folks, don’t just use soda, listen to Alton Brown on this, plus most of the recipes I found correctly used both).

But mixing in the dries the dough was still way too wet and sticky. It took another full cup of flour before it seemed right to me. Now, that’s strange, of course, since I don’t usually make our soda bread and so “feels right” (a good thing to develop) is not actually something I can claim. Kneading on a heavily floured board gave me a chance to cut the stickiness a bit (standard stretch-and-fold kneading) but when I put each mounded ball of dough on the silpad in the baking sheet and saw it begin to droop I realized the dough should have been a bit stiffer.

But it baked up nicely. The toothpick test seemed a bit vague to me so I used my instant read (despite not having seen a target internal temp in any of the other recipes) and decided that 150F was definitely too low even though the toothpick was almost clean. Two more iterations of 5 additional minutes and tests finally got a completely clean test plus now over 190F so I guess even wet dough soda bread needs about the same temp range as conventional lean yeast bread.

It was hard to resist tasting these loaves but I waited for the finished corned beef and quickly cooked up the cabbage about the moment my wife got home. With some carrots and potatoes, plus a nice pale ale, I have to say, one of the better St. Pat’s meals.

The bread. Well it is pretty good, a little bit too sweet (should have cut the sugar a bit when I decided to use the barley malt) and the caraway was way too strong (better with the dinner than just tasted separately). The texture was good, the crust was nice and crunchy (definitely different than lean breads) and the eggs worked as the slices held together fairly well, despite the bread being fairly light (a lot of soda breads, esp. all whole wheat, can be used as doorstops, maybe some people like dense loaves, I don’t). And the sourdough even with the 18 hour ferment: a) was just barely noticeable in taste, but complemented the sweetness, and, b) the yeast (at least in my starter) are pretty low activity, so there was no noticeable effect on oven spring (esp. as I had no rise time at all, mix and bake immediately).

So all in all a good experiment and so I’ll now reveal my finalized recipe with the tweaks for small improvements.

  1. At least eighteen hours before final dough, use your starter culture to make about 1 cup of poolish with any white flour (I used high protein, I doubt it mattered). Let this ferment at room temperature. It should have significant bubbles after 18 hours.
  2. mix 1/2c of oak flakes (not steel cut oatmeal if you don’t want to break your teeth) and 1-1/2c of whole wheat flour and scant teaspoon of caraway with 1.5c of buttermilk. (btw, you really need buttermilk to activate the soda; make your own (a little vinegar and milk) if you don’t have it, or if you just use milk, or even yogurt, add more baking powder to the dry mix.) Ideally this should also sit out overnight, but at least two hours minimum.
  3. at least two hours in advance soak 3/4c of raisins (your choice of which type, or currants if you don’t like the larger size of raisins) in your favorite booze, Irish whiskey preferred, but brandy or some fruit flavored brandy will do.
  4. mix well the poolish and the soaker in a larger bowl. Add two beaten eggs. Add two tablespoons melted butter. Add 3/4c (- one tablespoon) of turbinado or light brown sugar + one tablespoon of barley malt. Mix all these together well. The “dough” will be quite wet and very sticky. Add the soaked raisins discarding excess liquid (unless, of course, you used good booze, then toss it in, but you’ll have to increase the flour a bit).
  5. mix 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder with 2.75c all purpose flour. Stir this in by hand to the wet dough. It will take some work to get it all incorporated (the King Arthur mixing tool works great for this).
  6. on a well floured board scoop out the dough with your non-sticker bowl scraper. Flour your hands and the top of the dough. Stretch the dough and fold it over itself. Rotate 90 degrees and repeat. Then just do a bit of gentle kneading to consolidate dough into smooth ball.
  7. Most likely you’ll want to divide the dough into two balls and then shape each. Place of cooking sheet either with oil-sprayed parchment paper or a silpad.
  8. Bake at 350F (of course you preheated your oven) for at least 20 minutes, probably more like 30. A toothpick or tester should come out completely clean or (I think) your instant read should be at least 190F.
  9. Cool on racks at least half hour before slicing.
  10. ENJOY!

About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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