Sláinte: The Bread of Life!

Irish Bread

By Edythe Pretty, Contributor
April / May 2010

Many scholars contend that our prehistoric ancestors gave up their hunting-and-gathering lifestyle once they learned how to bake bread. Although there is evidence that barley was sown and harvested over 10,000 years ago, why seed was first planted remains a puzzle.

In the 1950s, archaeologist Robert Braidwood at Chicago University suggested that discovering bread-making methods led to the domestication of cereal grains. Botanist John Sauer at the University of Wisconsin argued that the work involved in collecting wild grain was too much trouble if the only reward was a bit of bread.  Theorizing that a bowl of grain may have been accidentally left out in the rain where the combination of moisture and air-borne yeast caused the seeds to ferment and produce a mildly alcoholic beer, Sauer suggested it may well have been a thirst for beer that turned early humans from foragers into farmers.

Whether bread or beer first motivated the Celts into tilling Ireland’s rocky soil will never be known, but both are mentioned in the Brehon Laws. Surprisingly, the Laws allowed anyone to brew ale and only its public sale was restricted. Bread, however, was regulated by weight, dimension and end consumer.  Bairgin banfuine (woman’s bread) was two fists wide and a fist thick while bairgin ferfuine (man’s bread) was twice as large.  A third loaf, bairgin indriub, was baked fresh daily and never sliced, since it was prohibited to serve visitors something that had already been cut.

The kind of grain used depended largely on who would be eating it. Wheat was scarce, and loaves made from it were consumed almost exclusively by chieftains and kings. Barley, which was associated with hardship and penance, was eaten by monks. On weekdays their spartan meals consisted of barley bread and water, but on Sundays and holy days they feasted on wheat bread, broiled salmon and mugs of ale. Oats were the most abundant grain crop, and oat bread was a principal food for Ireland’s poor. Well into the 19th century, millions of emigrants took oatcakes as provisions on the long voyages that carried them to new homes across the sea.

Bread was such a key element in the Irish diet, and famine such a constant threat, that people believed bread was a talisman that would ward off hunger.  Bits of bread were often used instead of coins to close the eyes of the dead. Travelers carried dry crusts in their pockets to ward off being cursed with starvation should they stumble on the grave of a famine victim.  Many people put out plates of breadcrumbs to appease malevolent spirits bent on doing mischief in the land of the living.  Wasting bread was unthinkable. Even the smallest scraps were saved to make puddings and thicken stews.

When the Normans arrived towards the end of the 12th century, they introduced the native Irish to two new eating styles: pastry and “trencher” bread. In the homes of wealthy barons and merchants, clever cooks added exotic spices brought back from the Middle East by Crusaders to make sweet custard fruit tarts and savory pies filled with fowl and game. And in all Norman households, meat and fish courses were served on thick slices of stale bread called “trenchers.”  When the meal was finished, the gravy-soaked bread was gathered up and given to servants, thrown to the dogs, or distributed to poor people waiting outside the gates.

A new grain was added to the Irish bread-making tradition when the United States shipped corn meal to Ireland during the famine years. This Indian or yellow meal was mixed with white flour, scalded with salted boiling water, rolled out two fingers thick, cut into scone shapes and baked. Although quite different from any bread the Irish had ever tasted, corn meal scones saved many from starvation.

In medieval times, monasteries were responsible for feeding their own sizable communities, thus, monastery kitchens were equipped with huge wall ovens where many loaves of bread could be cooked at one time. Owners of large landed estates could also afford the luxury of baking ovens, but until just this century the general population baked its bread on the open hearth.

Actually, Ireland’s most well known breads owe their fame to the fact that hearths had no built-in ovens. The earliest baking method consisted of wrapping bits of dough in cabbage leaves and laying the parcels in a warm corner of a smoldering fire until the leaves were singed and the bread cooked. When stone hearths evolved, a lec (bakestone) in the hearth was piled with embers until it was heated through. Then the ashes were brushed aside, a flat circle of dough scored into four triangular farls was laid on the hot stone, and the embers were moved to a new position. When the bread was cooked on its under surface, it was flipped and moved to the second spot to finish baking.

When blacksmiths began forging cast iron kitchen implements, three new cooking utensils became the cornerstones of Irish bread-making. The lan (griddle) replaced the bakestone as it could easily be moved to rest on fresh hot embers. The deep three-legged bastable pot (which gets its name from Barnstable, Devon where it was manufactured) produced a high-topped loaf, could stand anywhere in the hearth, and had a lid where red-hot embers were piled which eliminated having to flip the dough halfway through its baking time. Fenders were ornate wrought iron stands against which thin oatcakes were leaned so they could dry evenly and absorb a smoky flavor.

Through the centuries Irish bakers used many different leavening agents to make their bread rise. In early Christian times, dough was leavened with barm, a liquid yeast product of beer brewing. Another ancient method employed a sourdough starter, which is a piece of fermented dough left over from a previous baking.  Because adding the starter to a fresh batch of bread caused the new dough to rise magically, the small bit was called “blessed bread.”  Surprisingly, soda bread did not enter the Irish baking tradition until the 19th century when baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) was invented.  When added to wheat flour along with buttermilk, it produces the flavorful loaf that is now almost synonymous with Ireland.

There is little that can compare to the taste of fresh-baked wholemeal brown bread, soda bread, farls or oatcakes slathered with butter and homemade fruit preserves, but the Irish make a wealth of other baked goods too. Originally, only honey was added to make sweet breads for special occasions. Norman cooks added exotic spices and dried Mediterranean fruits, inventing gingerbread and currant cakes. Tudor English introduced caraway seed cake served with glasses of purloined Spanish port as an afternoon treat.

But it was almost certainly an Irish brewer who thought to stir Ireland’s other favorite grain products into a select few of its baked delights.  By adding a wee bit of porter or stout to plain fruitcake dough, or a splash of whiskey to chocolate cake batter, both are transformed into masterpieces of the Irish baking tradition and singular examples of Irish hospitality.


Baking has become a hobby for many during lockdown. To help you through we share these recipes with you from Irish America Magazine contributor Edythe Preet.

WHOLEMEAL BROWN BREAD (Ballymaloo Seasons – Darina Allen)

  • 2 1/2 cups stone-ground whole wheat flour
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 3/4 cups buttermilk

Preheat oven to 450F. In a large bowl, mix the dry ingredients thoroughly. Make a well in the center and add 1 1/2 cups buttermilk.  Mix together, adding more milk if necessary. The dough should be soft but not sticky. Turn out on a parchment lined baking sheet and shape into a loaf approximately 2-inches thick. Cut a deep cross on the top. Bake 15-20 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 400F and continue baking for 20-25 minutes or until the bread is cooked and sounds hollow when tapped on the base. Cool on a wire rack. Makes one large loaf.

SUNDAY SODA BREAD (personal recipe)

  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons caraway seeds
  • 4 tablespoon butter, cold
  • 2 cups golden raisins
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 tablespoon heavy cream

Heat oven to 350F. In a food processor, combine flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and caraway seeds. Pulse briefly. Add cold butter and pulse until the mixture looks like coarse meal. Remove to a large bowl and stir in raisins. In a small bowl, whisk together buttermilk, egg and baking soda until well combined. Pour buttermilk mixture into the flour mixture all at once, and stir with a fork until all the liquid is absorbed and the dough begins to hold together. Using your hands. Press the dough into a round, dome-shaped loaf about 8 inches in diameter. Transfer loaf to a parchment lined baking sheet. In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolk and cream together. Brush the egg wash over the loaf. Cut a cross approximately 1 inch deep into the top. Bake about 1 hour, rotating halfway through, until the loaf is a deep golden brown and a skewer inserted into the center comes away clean. Remove from oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool. Makes 1 large loaf or 2 small.

OATCAKES (personal recipe)

  • 3 cups oat flakes
  • ¾ teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 3 tablespoons hot water
  • 3/4 cup additional oatflakes

Preheat the oven to 350F.  Pulverize oats to flour in a food processor. Add baking powder and salt. In a large bowl, add melted butter and combine thoroughly. Add hot water 1 tablespoon at a time to make a smooth firm paste. Gather the dough into a ball, spread 1/4 cup oat flakes on a cutting board and roll the ball around until it is covered with oat flakes. Spread another 1/4 cup oatflakes on the board, place ball of dough on the flakes and roll to a circle approximately 1/8 inch thick. Sprinkle last 1/4 cup of oatflakes on the surface and press lightly to adhere. Cut into 8 wedges and transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for about 15 minutes. When the wedges are light brown, turn off the heat, open the oven door, and let oatcakes dry out for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and let oatcakes cool until firm on the baking pan. Serve with cheese or butter and jam. Makes 8 pieces.

CHOCOLATE WHISKEY CAKE (personal recipe)

  • 1 cup cocoa powder, unsweetened
  • 1 1/2 cups brewed coffee
  • 1/2 cup American Bourbon whiskey
  • 2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, cut in bits
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 325F. Butter 10-inch bundt pan and dust w/ sugar.

Heat coffee, whiskey, butter and cocoa powder in a 3-quart saucepan, whisking until butter is melted. Remove from heat, add sugar and whisk until dissolved. Transfer mixture to a large bowl and cool 5 minutes.

While chocolate mixture cools, whisk together flour, baking soda and salt. In a separate bowl, beat eggs w/ vanilla, then whisk into chocolate mixture. Add flour mixture and whisk until just combined (batter will be thin and bubbly). Pour batter into bundt pan and bake until a skewer inserted in center comes out clean – approx 40-50 minutes.

Cool 20 minutes on a wire rack, then remove cake and cool completely. Makes one cake, serves 8-12.

NOTE: Cake improves in flavor if made at least 1 day ahead and kept in a cake keeper or wrapped in plastic. Can be made up to 5 days ahead and kept chilled. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Co-founder and Editor of Irish America Patricia Harty shares this four ingredient Irish soda bread from Trial and Eater.

What you will need:

  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk

How to make it:

  • Preheat oven to 425°
  • In a mixing bowl, add flour, baking soda, and salt. Whisk together.
  • Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in buttermilk. Mix together (using hands is the best way to do this) until just combined. Do not overwork or knead the dough. Texture should be slightly crumbly but just sticking together.
  • Form into a ball and place on a cast iron skillet, greased baking sheet, or dutch oven. Make an “X” in the dough with a knife, about an inch deep.
  • Bake 40 minutes or until outside is browned.

Editor’s note: I used Kefir instead of buttermilk (plain yogurt is also good) and added a fistful of steel cut oats to the mix. Delicious!

Irish soda bread baked by Irish America Co-founder and editor Patricia Harty.

2 Responses to “Sláinte: The Bread of Life!”

  1. Edythe Preet says:

    Like the empty paper goods shelves in supermarkets, in some places yeast has also become hard to find. thwarting many bakers’ desire to make bread. Irish Soda Bread is an easy and delicious solution to the problem! So give it a try – you won’t be disappointed!!

  2. Tina Bonfield says:

    hi, from Nenagh. living in Seattle.

    any brown bread soda receipt.

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