Soda vs. Sourdough
Sourdough soda bread is kind of a contradiction. Soda bread was created in the mid-19th century after chemical leaveners became commercially available in Ireland. Ireland’s climate is best suited to “soft” or low-gluten wheat, which is not so great for producing networks of protein that trap the gas produced by yeast. What it is great for is tender, flaky or crumbly “quick” breads. Traditional Irish soda bread is a kind of like a loaf-sized biscuit or scone, except not so flaky, because there’s not as much fat in the dough. It does have the same tender, cake-like crumb and the distinctive flavor of baking soda and buttermilk. Some people also like to add caraway seeds, currants or raisins, although apparently that’s not an “everyday” bread for the purists.
At its best, soda bread is moist, dense, and a little crumbly—an ideal accompaniment for any kind of soup or stew or a thick slice of aged cheddar. It’s also great slathered with good salted butter. I wanted to get some Kerry Gold, but my grocery store doesn’t seem to carry it so I went with Lurpak instead. Both Kerry Gold and Lurpak get high marks for being made from grass-fed cows and thus higher in omega-3s and for possibly being more delicious than regular butter. I’m honestly surprised how much better the Lurpak tastes to me, but will probably still do a blind taste test sometime to see if that’s just expectation bias. They both get low marks for being expensive and flown across the ocean. Screw you, polar bears! Actually, I’d like to see a life-cycle analysis on pastured butter from Michigan (heated barns?) vs. pastured butter from Ireland.
Anyhow, the whole essence of soda bread is basically antithetical to yeast leavening, because the former depends on not having gluten networks, which would make the texture chewy and bready, and the former depends on gluten networks to trap the gas the yeast produce. However, I’m trying to prevent Ezekiel from becoming another casualty of my push to finish the dissertation (along with my social life and regular blog posting and personal hygiene…). So I decided to try using starter as just another ingredient, instead of the primary leavener—basically just substituting sourdough starter for some of the flour and water. There is probably some way to make sourdough-leavened soda bread. According to The Food Timeline, Irish people did make something similar to soda bread using sourdough or beer barm before the manufacture of sodium bicarbonate. But I couldn’t find a recipe that seemed to fit the bill online in less than ten minutes.
Seduced by Seeds
I did, however, find a few gorgeous pictures of a “Six-seeded Soda Bread” from the cookbook River Cottage Everyday by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, proud owner of the world’s most British-sounding name. And I also came across this strange sourdough quick bread involving chemical leaveners and an egg.
I decided to kind of combine the two, with some substitutions based on what I had on hand: I used 1 T. flax meal instead of flax seeds and nigella seeds instead of poppy seeds. I’ve been accumulating bacon grease faster than I can use it, so I decided to use that instead of vegetable oil. I also decided to use regular buttermilk instead of buttermilk powder and water. And then I decided to experiment with the rising time to see what the difference would be between baking it straight away (while the baking soda action is optimal) and letting it sit in the refrigerator overnight.
Thumbs up: Sourdough Starter and Overnight Refrigeration
Thumbs down: Whole Grain Flours and Fennel Seed
Left: baked immediately, Right: refrigerated overnight
The sourdough starter didn’t cause any problems—the bread wasn’t tough at all, and the flavor of the loaf I refrigerated overnight was great, aside from the overwhelming fennel. It also rose beautifully in the oven, despite Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s claim that you “need to get it into the oven while the baking soda is still doing its stuff.” (Never underestimate the power of Irish soda bread to rise, you limey bastard!) The refrigeration also enabled the flour to absorb more of the moisture, so it held the shape of the loaf better and turned out much prettier. Another view:
However, the multigrain flour was a terrible idea, and in retrospect I should have known better. Remember how I said it’s basically a loaf-sized biscuit? In my experience, whole wheat biscuits suck. And to make matters worse, I got all ambitious about the whole-grained-ness and instead of using half all-purpose or white bread flour, I used half “white whole wheat” which is still milled using the whole grain, it’s just a made from a kind of wheat that lacks some of the phenolic compounds in normal wheat; King Arthur’s calls it an “albino wheat.” It turned out way too crumbly and disappointingly virtuous-tasting, which is basically how I feel about everything I’ve made that was inspired by 101 Cookbooks. She takes lovely pictures and seems to have a remarkable fidelity to her particular, soy-centric idea of “health,” but man, we just have different culinary aesthetics. In the future, I’ll stick to white flour for my biscuits and soda bread. Live and learn.
Also, even though I halved the amount of fennel seed in the River Cottage recipe, it was still overpowering. Quoth Brian: “There’s no such thing as ‘a little’ fennel.” Unless you love it, leave it out. The other seeds were okay, but I think they just made an already-crumbly bread crumblier without adding much in the way of flavor. They’re kind of pretty, but ultimately I just don’t think they belong in this kind of bread.
So below, I’ve written out both the recipe I used and the recipe I’ll use next year, retaining the starter and and overnight rise, but ditching the virtue-flour and fennel seed. Since it’s not sourdough-leavened, the starter doesn’t need to be active, meaning you don’t could just as easily get the same effect by substituting some flour and water or more buttermilk.
For all those who celebrate this Thursday, Irish or not, Beannachtaí na Féile Páraic oraibh! (Blessings of St. Patrick’s Day Upon Ye!). Drink a Guinness for me. Read more »