I’m not a big bread baker. It just doesn’t tickle my fancy much. But last weekend I tried my hand at Irish soda bread, and now I’m on my second loaf in seven days. This is serious business.
I love a good whole-wheat loaf, and this one might be my favorite yet. It’s dense and chewy, with just enough white flour to give it a soft fluffy crumb.The sturdy crust growls oh-so-satisfyingly under a bread knife, revealing a plush, almost cakelike interior. The flavor is deep and gruff and wheaty, shot through with flax and oats and the licorice tang of whole caraway seeds. It really makes anything you’re eating with it feel like a good square meal. And since it’s a quickbread, there’s no kneading or rising involved–the dough comes together in minutes, and goes from mixing bowl to cutting board in under an hour.
There are two options for baking this bread: in a loaf pan, or rounded on a baking sheet. I’ve tried them both; the spongy middle turns out identical, but the crust is astonishingly different. The loaf pan produces a lighter bread, with a crackly-crisp crust on the top only. This would be a terrific breakfast bread, ideal for slathering with butter and jam. The round loaf, meanwhile, is crusty all around: the top is jagged and crunchy, and the bottom is solid like an artisan loaf. I’ve never had a crust this solid and satisfying on a whole wheat bread before. As an accompaniment to a thick winter stew or a hearty vegetable soup, I’m not sure it can be beat.
This bread is at its absolute best warm from the oven. As it cools, it loses a lot of its belly-warming charm. Once that happens, the only fix is the toaster oven–but it’s a good one. Toasting this bread restores some of that wonderful all-over crispness, and heightens the nuttiness and sweetness of the bread itself. A toasted slice of this bread is almost as satisfying as an oven-fresh one, with a thin shaggy crunch giving way to fluffy insides. My personal favorite M.O.? Freeze leftover slices–no more than an inch thick, please–and toast them straight from the freezer.
Oh, and though I’m not a beer drinker, I have it on good authority that this bread is The Thing to have with a glass of Irish stout. If you try it, please report back.
Brown Soda Bread (makes one round or rectangular loaf)
Note: Since posting this recipe, I’ve found that the brown sugar and the butter are totally optional. The bread will bake just fine without them. I still recommend the butter–even just a small amount adds great flavor–but the sugar is really up to you. Omit it (I usually do) for a truly savory loaf, or keep it for a sweeter, more breakfast-y bread.
2 1/2 cups (283 g) whole wheat flour
1 cup (120 g) all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (25 g) old-fashioned (rolled) oats, divided
2 tbsp (30 g) packed brown sugar (optional)
2 tbsp (20 g) flax seeds, whole or ground (optional)
1 tbsp caraway seeds (optional)
1 tsp (6 g) baking soda
1 tsp (6 g) salt
2 tbsp (1 oz) cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
2 cups (1 pint/16 oz) buttermilk or thin yogurt
Preheat oven to 425º F and place a rack in the middle position. For a round loaf, grease a baking sheet or line it with parchment; for a rectangular loaf, grease a 9×5 loaf pan.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, 3 tbsp (18 g) rolled oats, brown sugar (if using), flax seeds (if using), caraway seeds (if using), baking soda, and salt. Add butter (if using) and use a pastry cutter, a pair of forks, or your fingertips to mix the butter into the dry ingredients until it’s completely incorporated and crumbly. Add buttermilk and mix just until a sticky dough comes together–if necessary, knead the last of the flour in with your hands.
For a round loaf, turn the dough out onto the baking sheet, form it into a round, and use a sharp knife to slash an X in the top. For a rectangular loaf, transfer the dough to the loaf pan and even out the top. Sprinkle the remaining 1 tbsp rolled oats over the top of the loaf, and lightly press the oats into the dough. Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until the bread is golden on top and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool for 10-15 minutes before transferring to a cutting board.
Slice the bread and serve warm; once it’s cooled, toast slices before serving. Leftover bread can be wrapped in plastic wrap, then in aluminum foil, and frozen for up to 3 months.