Sunday, April 24, 2022

Irish Soda Bread: It’s Just Chemistry

By Terrie Todd

Imagine yourself in the middle of a
nineteenth century famine with a family to feed. The children are hungry and you have nothing to give them. The cow’s milk has dried up. In fact, maybe you’ve already eaten the cow. The garden is barren. All you’ve got is a bit of flour, maybe a pinch of salt. The baking soda and any other leavening agents you may have had are gone. How can you turn that bit of flour into something edible?

You’re still thinking about this as you scoop ashes from the fireplace and carry them to the outhouse. You keep a pail of ashes out there and have trained each of the children to toss in a small scoop after they’ve done their business. Though you may not understand the chemistry behind it, the alkalinity of the ashes helps break everything down more quickly.

Suddenly, you remember hearing about people using ashes in their bread to make it rise. But that would only work in combination with some kind of acid, like in sour milk or buttermilk. Too bad the cow died. Wait a minute. After he butchered the cow, your husband tanned her hide using sulfuric acid. You know he has some acid leftover. Could it be diluted and mixed with ashes to produce those elusive bubbles in bread dough?

Yes, it could. And believe it or not, it was. If you remember correctly from high school chemistry, mixing acid and alkaline ingredients produces carbon dioxide gas. That’s what makes the dough rise. Perhaps it was the experimenting with these unsafe ingredients that led to the superstition of cutting a cross into the bread dough before baking. Supposedly, the cross ensured that any evil spirits in the bread would leave.

Don’t try this at home, kids.

By the time Ireland’s potato famine hit in the 1850s, baking soda was in regular use. Although over a million Irish people died of starvation during that time, simple soda bread kept many alive. 

Baking soda is is a salt composed of a sodium cation and a bicarbonate anion.

The Irish have come a long way since the years when soda bread was the only thing on the table, but the basic recipe remains the same. Made with only four ingredients—soft wheat flour, salt, baking soda, and buttermilk—and traditionally baked over coals, Irish soda bread has become a staple in that country. Some swear it originated in Ireland, others claim that indigenous North Americans were baking a version of it even earlier. I suspect both are right, given the varying methods around the world of mixing grains with liquids and acidic with alkaline ingredients for the desired effect.

Tradition holds that if you add anything to these four basic ingredients, you’ve made “tea cakes,” not soda bread. A quick online search for a recipe, however, shows most people add eggs and often sugar, raisins, or spices.

Here’s the basic recipe I tried while researching my novel. Maybe you can try it next time you need a quick bread to go with soup or stew. If you like the chewy texture and taste of sourdough breads, you’ll like this too.


3 to 3 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups buttermilk


Preheat oven to 425 F.

In large bowl whisk together 2 1/2 cups flour, salt, and baking soda. Add buttermilk and stir just until it sticks together.

Turn out onto lightly floured surface and knead until it forms a smooth ball. Gradually add more flour as needed to achieve a firm dough. Dust the outside with flour and place on an ungreased baking sheet. With a sharp knife, slash a 1-inch-deep cross on top of the loaf. No need to let rise! Bake 35 minutes. Best enjoyed warm and slathered with butter.

In the dead-end Canadian town of Bleak Landing, Irish immigrant Bridget O’Sullivan lives in a shanty and dreams of another life as the Great Depression rages. Routinely beaten by her father and bullied by schoolmate Victor Harrison, the fiery redhead vows to run away and never return. Desiring to become anyone other than Bridget O’Sullivan, she never dreams the day will come when she must prove that’s exactly who she is—or that the one person who can vouch for her is her old nemesis, Victor. Can he also prove he’s a changed man worthy of her forgiveness and love?


Terrie Todd’s fictional character goes to work as a cook’s helper even

though the only thing she knows how to make is Irish soda bread. Read about it in her third novel, Bleak Landing. She’s also the author of The Silver Suitcase, Maggie’s War, Rose Among Thornes, and The Last Piece. Terrie is represented by Mary DeMuth of Books & Such Literary Agency. She lives with her husband, Jon, in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Canada where they raised their three children. They are grandparents to five boys.

Follow Terrie here:



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  1. Thanks for posting today. I think it's very brave to think about putting ashes and ashes into something you are going to eat! The recipe you included sounds good.

  2. ...and a little safer. :) Thanks for reading!