The short but fascinating history of Irish soda bread (2024)

Recently updated on July 31st, 2023 at 04:45 pm

When you think of classic Irish food, you probably picture a feast of Irish stew, cottage pie, black pudding and plenty of potatoes… But what about Irish soda bread? Almost every family in Ireland has its own recipe for this delicious bread, hand-written on a slip of floury paper, or tucked away in an old cookbook.

While its ingredients may be simple, soda bread is an Irish tradition that has led the country through some of its darkest times. We take a look at the short but powerful history of the famous bread.

When was soda bread first created?


This simple Irish classic is a staple in many households, used to mop up hearty stews and wash down pots of tea. It’s also a symbol of celebration, baked in droves in the lead up to Saint Patrick’s Day. However, the humble soda bread began as an affordable necessity and was the solution to many food problems facing Ireland at the time.

While soda bread is most famously attributed to Ireland, it was actually first created by Native Americans. They were the first to be documented using pearl ash, a natural form of soda formed from the ashes of wood, to leaven their bread without yeast.

The Irish later discovered and replicated the process. While it seems like an ancient recipe, Irish soda bread history began in the 1830s, when baking soda, or bicarbonate soda, was first introduced to the country.

What are the ingredients in traditional Irish soda bread?


At the time, widespread famine meant bread had to be made out of the most basic and cheapest ingredients available.

The four ingredients were soft wheat flour, salt, baking soda and sour milk (buttermilk is more commonly used today). Since yeast wasn’t readily available, the combination of baking soda and buttermilk acted as the leavening agent, causing the bread to rise.

The soft wheat flour was better for quick breads, rather than the hard wheat flour typically found in yeasted bread. Since Ireland’s unique climate was only suitable to grow soft wheat, soda bread was the perfect match for the country.

How Irish soda bread was made


Many Irish families also lived in isolated farm areas with no access to ovens, and soda bread solved this problem too. The bread was cooked in three-legged iron pots or baked on griddles over open hearths. This gave the bread its famous hard crust, dense texture, and slightly sour tang.

The unique texture of soda bread is a result of the reaction between the acidic sour milk and baking soda, which formed small bubbles of carbon dioxide in the dough.

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The shape of soda bread is also steeped in tradition. The Northern regions of Ireland divide their dough into four triangular shapes, with each triangle cooked on a flat griddle.

The Southern Irish regions bake their loaves in a classic round fashion and cut a cross on top of the bread. This was done for superstitious reasons, as families believed a cross on top of the bread would let the fairies out or ward off evil and protect the household.

The method of cooking soda bread is very quick, and it was usually made every two to three days and eaten with the main meal. The traditional way to eat soda bread is to break off a piece, split it and slather it in butter.

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Can you still find soda bread in Ireland?


Bread-making is a hugely important part of the country’s identity. Irish soda bread was such an integral part of daily life in almost every home, and this reliable bread has stood the test of time.

Today, you don’t have to go far in Ireland to smell the aroma of soda bread wafting out of a bakery, while many Irish families still bake their own bread from cherished recipes passed down through the generations.


There’s even a Society For the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread. The organisation is dedicated to protecting this national culinary treasure. They encourage people to get to know their Irish roots and learn to make traditional Irish soda bread.

They pay tribute to how far the Irish have come since the famine years (known as An Gorta Mor), when soda bread was often the only thing on the table to eat. The society is also quite firm on the traditional ingredients of soda bread:

Flour, Salt, Baking Soda, Buttermilk.
Anything else added makes it a “Tea Cake!”

Modern versions of Irish soda bread


While the basic ingredients have remained the same, many Irish families add their own extras like raisins, caraway seeds and honey.

No two soda breads are ever the same, and you’ll find all sorts in bakeries, from brown soda bread filled with grains, to more modern crusty white loaves made with flavourings like treacle, Guinness, cream of tartar, orange zest, oats, herbs or walnuts.

And while the flavours of soda bread may have evolved over the years, the way to eat it hasn’t; sliced open and slathered with creamy Irish butter.

Do you have a traditional Irish soda bread recipe? Have you ever tried this Irish classic? Let us know in the comments below!

The short but fascinating history of Irish soda bread (2024)


The short but fascinating history of Irish soda bread? ›


Irish cuisine encompasses the cooking styles, traditions and recipes associated with the island of Ireland. It has evolved from centuries of social and political change and the mixing of different cultures, predominantly with those from nearby Britain and other European regions. › wiki › Irish_cuisine
soda bread was first created in the 1830s, when baking soda was first introduced to the UK. At the time, Ireland was facing financial hardship and lack of resources, so they turned to soda bread out of neccessity, it was inexpensive and required few ingredients.

What is the short but fascinating history of Irish soda bread? ›

How Irish soda bread was made. Many Irish families also lived in isolated farm areas with no access to ovens, and soda bread solved this problem too. The bread was cooked in three-legged iron pots or baked on griddles over open hearths. This gave the bread its famous hard crust, dense texture, and slightly sour tang.

What is the myth behind Irish soda bread? ›

Contrary to a common misconceptions, the Irish did not import the Soda Bread recipe from the American Indians. This misconception is my fault because 30+ years ago on the original site I happened to mention Native Americans using Potash to make bread.

Do the Irish really eat Irish soda bread? ›

Each country has its “national” bread with recipes dating back to their forefathers. Ireland, for one, has embraced it's kind of bread – the soda bread. It is a basic staple among the Irish that they call it Irish Soda Bread. It's common to see the locals pair this famous bread with a bottle of Guinness too.

Why do they call soda bread soda bread? ›

Soda bread is a variety of quick bread made in many cuisines in which sodium bicarbonate (otherwise known as "baking soda", or in Ireland, "bread soda") is used as a leavening agent instead of yeast.

What's the difference between Irish bread and Irish soda bread? ›

Irish brown bread has a deep, nutty flavor because of its wheat flour and wheat bran while soda bread uses only white flour. Soda bread is slightly sweet and more scone-like while Irish brown bread is more savory with a tender interior.

Is Irish soda bread bad for you? ›

Nutrition Notes

Whole-wheat soda bread is a healthy addition to your plate! One serving—a 1/2-inch-thick slice—provides complex carbohydrates for sustained energy, protein, fiber, and vitamins and minerals.

Is there a difference between soda bread and Irish soda bread? ›

A soda bread defined in America

If you want to make an authentic Irish soda bread, the difference lies in what ingredients you should omit. According to Epicurious, Irish-American soda breads use caraway seeds and raisins in the recipe, while soda breads from Ireland lack both of these add-ins.

Is Irish soda bread better for you? ›

Soda bread

A traditional staple in Ireland and made simply from flour, buttermilk, baking powder and salt. Soda bread is quick to prepare and is a low-fat, yeast-free option. It may help alleviate symptoms of bloating and discomfort.

What country is most associated with Irish soda bread? ›

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.

How many days does Irish soda bread last? ›

Tightly wrap your leftover bread and place it in an airtight container. There's no need to refrigerate. As for how long soda bread lasts: Irish soda bread tends to dry out faster than other breads. The bread will be good for 3-4 days or up to three months if frozen.

How are you supposed to eat Irish soda bread? ›

To serve Irish soda bread, cut it into slices and serve it warm. Put out some room-temperature butter or citrus marmalade to spread over the slices with a knife. You can also serve Irish soda bread with a hearty stew and dip the bread in it.

Why are there raisins in Irish soda bread? ›

Plump raisins add pops of concentrated sweetness, but you could swap them out for any dried fruit, such as currants, sour cherries, or cranberries—or simply leave them out. No cast-iron pan? Form the dough into a round and bake it on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet.

What to pair with Irish soda bread? ›

Irish soda bread made without sweeteners or raisins is a natural pairing with smoked salmon or smoked trout, strong cheeses like aged cheddar or the Irish Cashel blue, and as an accompaniment to bowls of hearty soup.

Do you warm up Irish soda bread? ›

Irish soda bread is best when made fresh, but it can be made 1-2 days in advance, then cooled completely and wrapped with plastic wrap. To warm it up the next day, just unwrap it and heat in a 325 degree F over for 10-15 minutes. Irish soda bread freezes well for up to 2-3 months.

How is Irish soda bread traditionally eaten? ›

How to Eat Irish Soda Bread. This versatile bread works for any meal, but Irish soda bread is a natural for breakfast, whether simply spread with (Irish) butter and jam or alongside that hearty fry-up known as a full Irish breakfast. It's also wonderful with a cup of tea in the afternoon or as a late-night snack.

What impact did the potato famine have on soda bread? ›

They provide a history of Irish Soda Bread and Ireland, dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Ireland was grappling with the effects of the great potato famine. The bread gained in popularity when poorer families could not afford to buy bread and resorted to making their own.

What is traditional Irish soda bread made of? ›

Containing just four ingredients — all-purpose wheat flour, salt, baking soda, and buttermilk — this Irish soda bread recipe is very much in line with what's eaten in Ireland. In addition to this version made with white flour, the Irish do make a whole wheat (aka wholemeal) variety as well.

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