Irish soda bread – or just soda bread, if you prefer – is a type of quick bread that uses baking soda as a leavener. While this may not seem like much of a revelation these days due to the prevalence of baking soda in all kinds of recipes, it was a boon to bakers in Ireland in the mid 1800s. At that time, Ireland did not have a strong tradition of yeast breadmaking because, unlike many other European countries, the country did not produce much of the high-protein (hard wheat) flour necessary for making good yeast breads. When baking soda was introduced to the country, it pretty much replaced yeast. It produced a reliable rise in the oven, made tasty loaves of bread and would work perfectly with the softer Irish flour.
Soda bread has four basic ingredients: flour, buttermilk, baking soda and salt. The reaction between the buttermilk and baking soda produces bubbles of carbon dioxide, causing the dough to rise. The breads are fairly dense, moist and hearty (and satisfying for a cold and damp climate!). Moving beyond the basic elements, they can be flavored in any number of ways. Today, the breads often contain additional ingredients, like sugar, butter, currants or caraway seeds to enhance the flavor and texture of the bread. It is best served the day that it is made, when the crust is crisp from the oven, with plenty of salted Irish butter.