Friday, March 29, 2013

Irish Brown Bread

by Sheila Connolly

I've been racking my brain for any memories of Easter family dinners, but so far all I've come up with is chocolate.  Lots of chocolate.  I suppose my sister and I were too stuffed with bunny ears and foil-wrapped eggs and jelly beans and the like to eat much at the table.  I do, however, have a fond memory of my engineer father trying to drill holes in eggs with his electric drill so we could empty them, with mixed results.

Brown bread, or arán donn in Irish, is a staple of Irish meals, everywhere in the country. It appears from breakfast to dinner, usually accompanied by butter. It does not contain yeast, and any rising comes from the chemical interaction of buttermilk and baking soda.  It's quick to make, and it should be eaten the same day as it's baked.

I have been trying to make it on my own—and I've been having little luck.  I've collected, at last count, thirteen recipes, from Irish cookbooks (both high-end and pub food, and including one from the famous Ballymaloe cooking school in County Cork), friends, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the back of the Irish wholemeal flour package.  Guess what:  they're all different. No two alike. (And I'm not even counting the one from my former Irish teacher, an lovely older woman from Connemara, who doesn't even measure her ingredients.)

How can there be so much confusion about something that in its simplest form contains all of five ingredients?  The basic recipe has:  wholemeal flour (preferably coarse and stone-ground—Odlum's is the favored Irish brand, available by mail order), white flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk.  You combine the dry ingredients, make a puddle of buttermilk in the middle, and mix with your hands (but not too much or it gets tough).  Shape it into a round loaf, cut a cross in the top, and bake in a hot oven.  That's it.

In a perfect universe, maybe.  Me, I've ended up with a lot of chewy, doughy lumps. Great exercise for the jaw.

Then many sources start adding things to the basic recipe:  oat bran, oatmeal (both rolled oats and steel-cut), sugar, brown sugar, eggs, butter, honey or molasses.  Suggested cooking temperatures range from 375 to 450, in one stage or two.  And the proportions of wholemeal flour (which really does make a difference—using regular brown flour is definitely not the same) to white flour are all over the map too:  ratios range from  1:2 to 3:1 brown to white. The average ratio is just under 2:1 brown to white flour, but given the consistency of the Odlum's wholemeal flour, I'd tip it toward 1 1/2 to 1 (and the Odlum's package agrees; Ballymaloe pushes it even closer to half and half).

Irish Brown Bread (1 large loaf)

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

3 cups wholemeal flour
2 1/2 cups white flour
1/4 tsp of salt
1 tsp baking soda
2 cups (full fat) buttermilk (plus more if needed)

Whisk together the dry ingredients in a large bowl.  Make a well in the middle and pour in the buttermilk.  Mix quickly with your hands just until blended (overwork it and it will get gluey), adding more buttermilk if needed.  The dough should not be too sticky.

Make the dough into a ball and place it on a an ungreased baking sheet. Flatten it until it is about 2" thick.  With a sharp knife make a cross in the top (do not cut through).  Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 400 degrees and continue baking until done (you'll know it's done when it sounds hollow when you tap it). 

Cool on a rack.  Serve with lots of butter! (It's good with blackberry jam too.)

I wish I could tell you that this is the perfect recipe, but it's still not quite there (not gummy this time, but rather crunchy).  If anyone out there has a treasured recipe for Irish soda bread, I'll be happy to add it to my collection!


  1. Sheila - I can just see your engineer dad using his electric drill on your Easter eggs. Not the ones in your pic though, they look perfect.

    And on the subject of perfect... You have my admiration on searching for the perfect recipe for Irish Brown Bread. I came across a recipe once that directed the bread to be baked at 350 F in a bain-marie within the oven (for one hour) and then finished on a baking sheet at the same temp for 30 min. I never tried the recipe, but I do wonder if this baking method is a trick for good results. Again, I'm no expert on Irish bread, but I do bake bread in my oven about once a week, and I've found that moisture in the baking process is an important factor. Don't know if that helps but it's an intriguing idea. Have a great weekend and Happy Easter!

    ~ Cleo

  2. Sheila, before I was gluten-free, I made this kind of bread all the time. I found the trick was making sure it was "done" inside. I'd never seen this tip until I had a gluten-free recipe book, but if you stick a thermometer in the bread and make sure it is at least 180 won't be sticky. It worked on my GF foccacia.

    Good luck.

    Daryl / Avery

  3. Ah, Irish brown bread. Heaven? Or a gummy brick?
    Congratulations on your perseverance! I hope you find the ultimate version.
    The following is from Beard On Bread by James Beard Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1973 It's a beautiful book to look at as well as use.
    "Irish Whole-wheat Soda Bread
    Traditionally, soda bread is baked over a peat fire in a three-legged iron pot that can be raised or lowered over the fire in the old-fashioned way. It's round, with a cross cut in the top, and has a velvety texture, quite unlike yeast bread, and the most distinctive and delicious taste. Sliced paper thin and buttered, it is one of the best tea or breakfast breads I know, and it makes wonderful toast for any meal.
    [1 round loaf]
    3 cups whole-wheat flour
    1 cup all-purpose flour
    1 tablespoon salt
    1 level teaspoon baking soda
    3/4 teaspoon double-acting baking powder
    1 1/2 to 2 cups buttermilk.
    *Combine the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly to distribute the soda and baking powder, then add enough buttermilk to make a soft dough, similar in quality to biscuit dough but firm enough to hold its shape. Knead on a lightly floured board for 2 or 3 minutes, until quite smooth and velvety. Form into a round loaf and place in a well-buttered 8-inch cake pan or a well-buttered cookie sheet. Cut a cross on the top of the loaf with a very sharp, floured knife. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the loaf is nicely brown and sounds hollow when rapped with the knuckles. (The cross will have spread open, which is characteristic of soda bread.) Let the loaf cool before slicing thin; soda bread must never be cut thick."

    I agree with Avery/Daryl about the temperature check, although I heard it should be 190 degrees.
    All bread needs to cool before slicing or you get a gummy mess. (I guess monkey bread is the exception. There it's a matter of it being cool enough to touch safely!)

    And if all else fails, find a friend with a boat who need ballast!

  4. Thanks for the tip about using a thermometer (none of my 13 recipes mentioned that). And the idea of using steam is interesting--maybe I could replicate that with a pan of boiling water in the oven? It could be a throwback to the old peat fires--peat still has a lot of moisture in it when it's fresh.

    I think I actually have a copy of Beard on Bread, if only I can find it. (As an aside, I was once sitting in a small restaurant in Berkeley and Beard walked in--he was unmistakable. It was a good restaurant.)

  5. I have baked bread that looked very similar. Seems like there wasn't enough liquid, perhaps? I think I'd try the 1/2 and 1/2 flour, too.

    I'll have to try this some time. I bought beer today for the bread I'm baking for Easter. That's another way to cheat and make bread rise.