SODA BREADS AND SODA…….
Soda breads are seen to be “Irish” but recently I realised they werent really Irish, but actually “Industrial”. The oldest references I can find to the historical use of soda, was from the American colonies where an extract of wood-ash (proto-soda) was used in sourdough breads, quite a surprise, evidently to reduce the sourness and assist with leavening. This may be an even older practice? It certainly accords with how soda works as a leavening agent, with the acids from the sourdough setting off the liberation of gases from the soda which will aerate a dough.
The Irish process is to use cultured buttermilk as the acid source which also reduces the soapy taste too much soda can engender.
But that’s the oldest reference, and unless the Irish were also using wood-ash, which doesn’t seem to be recorded, one wonders where and when soda appeared as leavening for cakes and breads. The old recipes don’t mention it at all. Cakes were leavened with yeast or sourdough, or were simply in another form we wouldn’t recognise as “cake”, and there is no mention of anything of the sort being used to leaven breads.
The history of soda, while recording the ancient Egyptians use of “Natrum” which is a naturally occurring “ soda”, is silent on its culinary use, as Natrum was largely used as a cleaning product it seems.
Soda as Sodium Bi-carbonate in its pure form wasn’t at all available until soda of carbonate, sodium carbonate was first isolated by French chemist leBlanc in 1791, and in 1824, an American company was producing sodium bi carbonate from sodium carbonate and carbon dioxide. But prior to this, the American colonists were making and using “pearl ash” purified wood-ash for which a patent was even issued in 1790. This is potassium carbonate, evidently the colonists learned to use it as a leavening agent from the Indigenous Americans, which process may be lost in time.. The American Indians soaked Maize or Corn in lye water made from wood ash to “nixtamalise” , make it more digestible and to make the nutrients bio-available. This may be the origin of the process. Some older recipes for corn pone make the cornmeal batter and soak it overnight with soda, and this may be a remnant technique in which the pearl ash was mixed with the cornmeal, left to soak and then baked, originally in the ashes of a fire, becoming aerated from the process?
Saleratus was developed from this, which is potassium bicarbonate and this replaced pearl ash but was in turn replaced itself by the new sodium bicarbonate. This became a widespread industrial process and was rapidly developed in the USA and the UK where it was being employed in cake making by the middle of the Nineteenth century.
The process rapidly spread to Eire where it was first recorded in a publication in 1836 to be used in breads or “quick breads”, and became widely used in the British isles in scones although its use in bread was hardyy adopted at all. The use of bi-carb as a leavening for cakes was first recorded in Britain within the same time-scale. It remained an “Irish” process to make soda bread., eventhough the roots of this method would appear to be American. The “Irishness”may be due to economy. Bread ovens appear to have been scarce. On the household level, the soda bread was quickly baked on a hearth with the cooking pot inverted to fit over the bread, and coals placed on top….in the same way as a cloche is used, a micro-oven. Curiously soda bread is also made in Serbia, particularly as a special or wedding bread. which also contains a coin as does the Irish bread when baked on special days or ceremonies.
Irish soda bread can be white or brown, with the brown usually being made from quite coarse wholemeal flour, usually ground from tasty soft wheat. There are also very good Spelt soda breads now made in Eire.
The directions for soda bread specify that it must not be worked or kneaded and that the dough should never be firm, but softer than a regular bread dough.
The ingredients for a classic Irish soda bread exactly mirror those in a common American colonial recipe for corn bread or pone. The only difference is in the grain used, which is cornmeal in the Americas and Coarse wholemeal wheat flour in Ireland. These are meal, buttermilk, salt and bicarb. There are more variations in the American, the most common being added lard. Corn pone was also made with only cornmeal water and salt.
Irish soda bread is always cut or slashed into four with a cross, before being baked. This allows for an even rise without unattractive bursting. It also “lets the devil out”, which is usually scoffed at by moderns, yet we need to understand the context. When breads burst and split open, this was seen as unattractive and less harmonious, so in the view of the times was less than ideal…the devils work rather than that attractiveness which stems from a proper (godly) craft process. Part of the craft process means that by slashing the bread deeply, it will ensure the loaf is cooked through with no doughy centre, which is exactly what happens if a too-deep soda bread without slashes is attempted. Its an over simplification and unjust to archaic people to suggest they literally thought the devil, Satan, was being released…the devil is in the detail! Being a Christian symbol, it was/is of course the antithesis of “the devil” and widely used as a representation of the power of good over evil. For this reason it was put on many objects, such as hot cross buns, not to “let the devil out” but to stamp the good on.
Added by: johndownes
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