Monday, March 16, 2009

Irish Soda Bread Showdown!

In honor of St. Patrick's Day this year…


So what exactly is Irish soda bread? The traditional version has only 4 ingredients: flour, buttermilk, baking soda and salt - an inexpensive but filling quickbread served alongside a main dish. But most of the "traditional" soda breads I've tried contain butter, sugar, eggs, caraway seeds, raisins and/or currants. In the U.S., Irish soda bread has evolved into its "rich American cousin".

Irish soda bread is having an identity crisis - how can there be so many versions that all claim to be "traditional"? Do Irish-Americans even like Irish soda bread in its purest form? My friend Margaret, who's half Irish, says that she'll only eat soda breads that are really sweet and cake-like, covered in a generous dusting of confectioner's sugar (she recently purchased soda bread from Stop 'n Shop that met all her criteria). So I'm staging an Irish soda bread showdown to reveal the BEST TASTING recipe, authentic or not! I mean, how good can authentic Irish soda bread taste without sugar and fat?

Over the past couple weeks, I researched and collected recipes from the internet/cookbooks/cooking magazines and even convinced a couple of Irish friends to share their secret family recipes with me. I narrowed the field down to 6 worthy contenders and bought out the buttermilk supply at my local Wegman's (yes, that was me). I baked 9 loaves of soda bread (and I'm so NOT a baker - hell, I don't even like to measure ingredients!) Finally, I enlisted the help of Kris' predominantly Irish co-workers to help with a blind taste testing (accompanied by Kerrygold Irish unsalted butter, Bonne Maman strawberry preserves, and Cahill’s Porter Cheese).

click on names for recipe links):

This was the easiest and most economical recipe to prepare (took only 10 minutes to throw it together and get it in the oven, hence the term "quickbread"). I did have to add about a quarter cup extra of buttermilk to get the dough to come together. It was the only bread I cut a cross into (to ward off the devil!) and I was really proud of how pretty it looked coming out of the oven. I even tapped it on the bottom to check the doneness and it sounded hollow (just like the recipe said it would). Despite several judges' comments about the dryness, Kris and I didn't find it dry at all - the consistency was surprisingly soft/doughy on the inside and it tasted mildly sweet (even with no sugar). You could actually smell the baking soda, which sounds kinda weird but it really did smell nice. And the buttermilk flavor really came through because of the limited ingredients. Tasted great with some Irish butter and a dab of strawberry preserves. And it would be perfect served alongside a hearty stew...
A couple weeks ago, our friend Dan shared cute story with us over dinner about his grandma's soda bread -Grandma Murphy's handwritten recipe was given to a friend decades ago and was passed around for years until it miraculously found its way back into Dan's hands recently. So I had to include his recipe in the showdown. This bread was really easy to prepare - just throw everything in a bowl, mix and bake. But I had to run out to get a couple extra ingredients - this was the only recipe that used cream of tartar and margarine (which some judges detected in an aftertaste). I found the texture lovely and the taste more savory than the other breads. Perfect with strawberry jam!

King Arthur Flour's St. Patrick's Day Irish-American Soda Bread
I chose this recipe because I prefer King Arthur Flour to other brands and they've never let me down. The recipe had great reviews and the description said it tasted like a rich scone, so what could bad about that? Not as easy to prepare as the secret family recipes – I had to actually use a handheld beater for this one. I panicked for second when my butter refused to “cream” properly with the sugar (guess I didn’t soften it enough?). I panicked even more when it came out of the oven looking almost as pale as when I put it in! But none of that mattered because the bread turned out delicious -moist like a pound cake, sweet (but not too sweet), with the perfect amount of caraway and raisins. Also really easy to slice. I love foolproof recipes! So what if it's not traditional?

Irene Sullivan is a close family friend - she lived across the street from my husband Kris while he was growing up. Irene's soda bread was the first I ever tasted and my mother-in-law Barbara makes it without fail every St. Patrick's Day. Kris even gets a little nostalgic whenever he has it! A cinch to throw together, everything in one bowl (just like Grandma Murphy’s recipe). I love the caraway flavor and the sweetness of this bread. Tasters loved the texture - crumbly but still moist.

Wegman's Irish Soda Bread
I thought this storebought version tasted really good - it wasn't too sweet, and the whole wheat flour, currants and caraway seeds added lots of flavor. So I snuck it into the competition to see whether anyone would notice - why go through all the trouble of baking when you can just buy it?

Downey's Restaurant's House Soda Bread The biggest disappointment - super labor intensive and I expected it to taste better with 2 sticks of butter and dark brown sugar in the recipe. I also had high expectations because Downey's customers raved about their complimentary "house" soda bread. I found this recipe in my March 2009 issue of Gourmet Magazine and while it sounded good on paper, the dry to liquid proportions were way off -the bread refused to come together (almost 8 cups of flour to only 2 cups of buttermilk). I even purchased a special utensil for this recipe - a pastry blender, but shouldn't have bothered because I could have just done the mixing by hand. I ended up with a crumbly mess in a giant bowl so I nervously added another cup of buttermilk and it finally started to come together. I was in full-on panic mode because we all know you that you don't mess with proportions in baking! I also didn't plan on kneading the bread at all, as the recipe's instructions only said "mix until it forms a smooth dough". Yeah right! - I never got near a smooth dough, but I gave up kneading after I literally could see strands of gluten forming (and before it turned into a rock). The bottoms ended up being really dense which is probably why they came dangerously close to burning while baking. However, the inside crumb was pleasant enough - like fluffy whole wheat bread (this was the only recipe I made that used whole wheat flour, which would be called a "brown" bread in Ireland). But I still think I prefer the 4 ingredient recipe (Kris liked this brown recipe better because he said it had a better flavor). I just checked the recipe again and noticed that it says "adapted from Downey's" so maybe something got lost when downsizing the restaurant recipe to suit the home chef. And it also says "easy to slice" - Ha! Kris says I woke him up with the persistent sawing noise coming from the kitchen.

The majority of participants, even the Irish ones, preferred the sweeter/cake-like entries. Most hated the more traditional recipes, saying they were dry and bland. So I guess the answer is "NO", Irish-Americans (at least the ones we know) don't actually like traditional Irish soda bread. But Kris and I were really surprised by how good the 4 ingredient bread tasted. Maybe next time (if I ever decide to bake again) I'll include a hearty stew with the judging to even out the playing field for the more traditional entries (which really aren't meant to be eaten on their own as a dessert).

It was a tough battle:
King Arthur Flour's St. Patrick's Day Irish-American Soda Bread came in a very close 2nd - judges enjoyed its moist cake-like texture and sweetness, but some found it too much like poundcake.

Coming in 3rd was Wegman's storebought Irish Soda Bread - judges (particularly the Irish ones) felt it was more "traditional" with its bread-like texture.


Irene Sullivan's
Irish Soda Bread

4 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 stick (4 ounces) butter, softened
2 eggs
1 1/4 cup buttermilk
1 cup raisins or currants (or less if you want)
1 Tablespoon caraway seeds
a "drop" of oil (approx 1 Tablespoon of vegetable oil to make it cake-like)

Irene's recipe simply says:
"Bake in oven at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to 1 hour."

But some of us novice bakers need a little more direction than that so this is how I prepared it:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl
Gently form into a round loaf
Place in a greased 9" round cake pan
Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour at 350 degrees
(check doneness by inserting a wooden skewer - it should come out clean)

Congratulations, Irene!

As your prize, you will receive the "me HUNGRY!"
Irish Soda Bread Showdown trophy!
(generously donated by my mother-in-law, Barbara)

Thanks to all the judges:
Allison, Bill V., Brad, Colleen, Jane, Jim N., Jim O., Joe, Lou, Peggy, Stasia, Tom, Tom R., and Waishuen!

And a big thank you to my darling husband Kris for his huge role as showdown administrator - poor guy had to carry all the bread samples, jam, butter, cheese, ballots, utensils, and napkins to work everyday last week! He also helped me eat all the leftover bread!

Special thanks to Irene Sullivan and Dan Murphy who generously shared their family recipes with me.

Curious how much it cost me to make enough bread for over a hundred people? Less than $35 for the ingredients (including 9 lbs of King Arthur organic flour, 1.5 lbs of unsalted butter, 2 lbs of sugar, 3 quarts of buttermilk, caraway seeds, raisins, currants, baking soda, and baking powder), and $12 for the accompaniments (strawberry preserves, 1 lb Irish butter, and 1/2 lb Irish cheese). Definitely recession food!

Think you have an Irish soda bread recipe that tastes better than Irene Sullivan's recipe?
Send me an email:


3/18/09 update:
YIPPEE! Salt & Pepper has given my blog post an OM NOM Nomination!



Keith K said...

Irene's Irish Soda Bread is the best that's out there. I dare Bobby Flay to make a better soda bread.

Anonymous said...

Thems fighten words - but looking at your recipe, I can understand your confidence - I'll have to try

Table Talk said...

What a fun post! Thanks for sharing your adventures of Irish Soda Bread with us.

The Other Tiger said...

Wow, that's quite a showdown! This is great...I love seeing the descriptions and pictures of the different kinds. My husband just made some of the more traditional Irish soda bread with King Arthur's Irish wholemeal flour. They have a recipe on the back of the bag. It was really flavorful (especially with the Irish butter), and tasted sort of like a savory, soda-y scone.

Anonymous said...

I was diagnosed with a terminal disease in 1997 and doctors said I had 6-9 months to live. Ever since, I’ve eaten one of Irene’s Soda Breads a day and I’m still going strong!

Anonymous said...

What a great idea to have an irish soda bread tasting! Awesome post!

Coconut Girl Connie said...

Too fun! Showdown, just the thing to get my Irish/Hawaiian blood going this mornin'! Yes, the original bread is very simple, very peasant. (even the crackers) My mom's last name is Hopkins and her family brought these recipes with them to Hawaii. So we would have Soda bread with Hawaiian Stew and Poi with Corn Beef and the universal language! Good job!

Eirinn Go Brach! & Aloha

Salt and Pepper said...

Great post...we gave it a shout out on our blog with an OM NOM Nomination.

LindaWhit said...

I just read about your Irish soda bread showdown on Chowhound and came here to read what you went through - what fun!

I grew up with a more traditional dry bread (my Grandma's recipe) which I could only have a slice or two of; then I'd get bored with it (too dry). But this year, I tried a recipe that was published in the Food section of the Boston Globe...and it got rave reviews from my coworkers! The link is:

I'd be interested to know what your judges think of this one as well, should you want to try yet another one (even now that it's after St. Patrick's Day :-) ). I was drawn to it because of the comments by the writers saying the canola oil makes for a moister crumb, which it did.

Chris said...

I love Irish soda bread, but do confess a preference for the sweeter version. I'll give Irene's recipe a try.

Tangled Noodle said...

Kudos to you for making all those breads but what a great payoff - tasting such a variety of baked goods! I love Irish breads, particularly the humble brown bread, and I was fortunate to have received from a friend and co-worker her family's recipe for soda bread. I will have to try your top 3 finishers!

Anonymous said...

Nice job on the showdown. I was one of the lucky ones to get to try all of the breads and Irene's was awesome. She is 100% Irish so I do not know if that gave her an extra advantage in the recipe creation but I am sure glad she makes it.

Anonymous said...

Francesca, Frank and I can't wait to try the winner's recipe. Good post and very fun to read. Even Francesca loved it!!!!