3.16.2010

The just right thing

I’ve had an ongoing battle with soda bread for a while now. A bread recipe that requires zero yeast and zero kneading should, by my calculations, be a snap to make. And it is. Whether the resulting bread is also a snap to eat is an entirely different question. After my second or third failed attempt, it was time for a shock and awe approach. I scoured the internet, magazines, and my cookbook collection for soda bread recipes, and diligently tested every last one. The results ranged from mildly disappointing to truly devastating. It was shock and awe alright, only I was the one in shock. As for the awe, there wasn’t any. Just a whole lot of awful. One loaf was about as appetizing as a brick of pressed sawdust. The next was slightly better, but still crumbled to bits at the mere sight of a serrated bread knife. With a little tweaking, I managed to produce a couple of loaves that were moist, chewy, and even a teensy bit flaky, almost like a buttermilk biscuit. Almost. Which begged the question, why the heck am I investing two cups of buttermilk in a subpar soda bread when I could be making a batch, no, two batches of perfect, never-“almost” biscuits?

So I put my foot down. No more soda bread. And that was my stance, toes firmly planted on the kitchen floor, for the better part of two years. Until last Saturday night when, with not a crumb of bread in my pantry and nothing to lose, I decided to lift said foot and step tentatively in the direction of what would turn out to be the loaf I had been waiting for.



My most common complaint about the soda breads that I had tried in the past was simply that they didn’t live up to what I had in mind. I’m not sure that was very fair of me, given that I don’t think I really knew what I had in mind. Whatever it was, I was hell bent on figuring it out. It was a classic case of I’ll know it when I see it. With enough tweaking and thinking and tweaking some more, that elusive just-right soda bread would be mine. But last Saturday night, I was too tired to do much figuring. I had absolutely nothing in mind and, for once, I didn’t fight it. Instead, I looked around and took stock of what I did have: A crumpled old recipe. A half-empty carton of buttermilk in the back of the fridge. And the humble thought that a little bread might be nice with the tomato lentil soup that was simmering on the stovetop. When I realized that I was missing several of the listed ingredients, I didn’t tweak as much as improvise with what I had on hand.



This hearty, brown loaf may not be everyone’s idea of the perfect soda bread, but it’s mine. I’d say it’s the complete package. There’s the requisite craggy crust, and a crumb that’s spongy, yet compact enough to stand up to a proper, almost sandwich-worthy slicing. And slice it you must! This bread was made for the toaster oven. When I served a piece to my friend, Eitan, for breakfast one morning, he went so far as to pronounce it his “ideal toast.” I’d call that crazy talk if I didn’t know exactly what he means. In the toaster, everything that’s good about this bread gets better. It’s nuttier. Sweeter. The flavor is undeniably biscuit-like, but in a good way, a way that has you reaching for another slice, instead of wishing you’d made biscuits instead. And did I mention that there’s whole wheat flour in there? And oatmeal? And flax seeds? And that it takes less than ten minutes to prepare? This bread is all kinds of wonderful. It was a long time coming.

After so much trial and error, I was, at least, right about one thing all along: Sometimes, you have no idea what you’re looking for until it’s on the table, staring up at you through a layer of raspberry jam. Suddenly, there it is. The just right thing. When I think about how this particular just right thing came to be, I begin to wonder whether I was, perhaps, getting in my own way with all of that figuring, tweaking, and aiming. I do that sometimes. But more and more, I’m learning to step aside and let myself through. It’s so… humane. I like how it feels.



I’m off now to bake another one of these loaves for a late dinner. Here’s the recipe, in case you’d like to join me.

Brown Soda Bread
Adapted from Bon Appétit, May 1996

1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 3/4 cups whole wheat flour
3 Tbsp. instant oats
1 Tbsp. ground flax seeds
2 Tbsp. packed dark brown sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. (1/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 cups buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and butter a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan. Combine the first seven ingredients in a large bowl, and mix well. Add the butter, and rub it in with your fingertips until the mixture resembles a fine meal. Dig a well in the center of the dry ingredients, fill with the buttermilk, and stir just until the liquid is fully integrated. Any longer, and you risk a tough dough. The consistency will be something between a very soft dough and a thick, lumpy batter.

Transfer the dough to the prepared loaf pan, and bake until the bread is golden brown, and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. It should take between 35 and 40 minutes. Turn out the bread onto a rack and cool slightly before serving.

39 comments:

Darby O'Shea said...

Yeah, but did it rise? That's been my issue with soda bread - seems like every recipe I try is just too heavy to rise. Maybe more soda? Maybe less flour? I don't know. I'll try your recipe.

molly said...

Sometimes a stout loaf is just the thing, and oats somehow work all kinds of magic in baked goods. The only soda bread I've ever loved called for yogurt instead of buttermilk, but this has promise written all over it.

tara said...

Our bread bin is looking a bit bare ... I think I'll be filling it up rather soon.

Jess said...

Hello there Ms. Darby O'Shea! The simple answer to your question is that yes, it did rise, though not as high as the yeast breads that I make in this loaf pan. When I read your comment last night, I took a ruler to the specimen that I had just pulled from the oven. (Because, you know, I'm a crazy lady who measures her bread.) At its tallest point, the loaf was about 3.5 inches, just a little higher than the top of the loaf pan. My store-bought sandwich loaf came in at 4 inches (yes, I measured that, too!), so I'm thinking that this soda bread didn't fare too badly. I'm also not sure that soda breads are meant to be super-tall - are they?

I noticed on the Bon Appétit website that, after reading several comments from disappointed readers, the editors have made some changes to the original recipe that you tried and posted on your site. One of their suggested alterations is indeed to add an extra teaspoon of baking soda. Maybe you could give that a try?

Molly, I love that you said "stout" when I was thinking "squat." Your word sounds much kinder. I've baked cakes with yogurt, but never bread. If you have a favorite recipe, I'd love to try it.

Wonderful, dear Tara! I think you're going to like this one.

Kalyn said...

I made this same bread (I found the recipe in the Bon Appetit cookbook) but I subbed white whole wheat flour for the white flour for a brown soda bread that was 100% whole wheat. I agree, this recipe was a keeper for me too!

Rosiecat said...

I could really use a good savory quick bread in my baking repertoire. Jess, I feel your pain in testing all those recipes and finding no keepers! But I'm happy for a happy ending here because now I can go home and bake this bread and eat toast. Do you think this will make for a good cinnamon toast? I can't wait to try it!

Jess said...

Kalyn - It's so good, right?! You know, I've been meaning to do some baking with this white whole wheat flour that everyone's talking about. I'm going to have to pick some up and try it in my next go-around with this bread. Thanks for the suggestion. I really appreciate it.

Oh, Rosiecat, I can't wait for you to try it. I've actually been thinking that a hunk of this bread would be excellent alongside a bowl of that tomato soup that we both know and love. As for the cinnamon, hmmm, I'm having trouble seeing it in my mind's eye. (By which I mean tasting it with my mind's tongue. Wait, that actually sounds a little gross.) But I do know that this bread swings easily in the direction of sweet. It's great with butter and honey, so why not try a different, cinnamon-sugary take on sweet? Let me know how you like it.

Lindsey @ pickyeatings said...

I've never actually had soda bread before...I know it makes a big comeback every year around this time, but I have never had it. Or made it. And if you had told me that it had yeast and soda you drink in it, I would have believed you.

AMUSE-BOUCHE FOR TWO said...

"Sometimes, you have no idea what you’re looking for until it’s on the table, staring up at you through a layer of raspberry jam." I just had to repeat that. It's genius. :)

carolyn said...

oh, thank you! i totally sympathize with your soda bread disappointments...so i made this tonight and it was exactly what i'd been searching for. just right!

Erin said...

After seeing your tweet the other day mentioning that Eli rushed from bed in order to have a slice of this toast in the morning I have a hunch that this is quite the "keeper" of a recipe.

eyeprinciple said...

Hi! Diane here from BA.
We had some brown bread recipes in our March 2010 issue too... wonder how those fare in home kitchens?

LOVE YOUR BLOG!

xo

Jess said...

Lindsey - That would make for an interesting soda bread, indeed! Dr. Pepper soda bread, anyone? (Is it weird that I actually think that sounds kind of good?)

Thanks, Amuse-Bouche for Two. You're too kind.

Thank you, dear Carolyn! It makes me happier than you can imagine when I hear that someone has tried a recipe from this site and found success. I appreciate your taking the time to let me know.

Erin - With the exception of lemon bars and oatmeal cookies, baked things generally don't excite the guy. The fact that he's so into this bread means it must be something special. (Of course, my taste buds alone could have told you that.)

And Diane, hello! What a nice surprise to see your name pop up here. Thanks for your very kind words. As for the soda bread recipe from the March 2010 issue of Bon Appétit, that's actually the recipe that Darby O'Shea (the first commenter up top) tried. She had some trouble with it and, based on the comments on the BA site, so did a bunch of other readers. But there's a note on the BA recipe online now, and it sounds like the good folks in your test kitchens have fixed it up.

Lilly Higgins said...

Your bread looks great and I'm so delighted that you love soda bread now! Definitely don't add more soda as it really effects the taste. I make soda bread nearly every week and throw all sorts of things in: oats, chocolate chips, raisins, bacon pieces & cheese, poppy seeds & lemon zest,rye flour, anything! It does taste a bit stale after 2 days but is SO nice toasted.
I'm in Ireland and always use the Ballymaloe basic soda bread recipe, it never fails! x

Jess said...

Hi, Lilly. Thanks for the tip about the baking soda. I've had excellent results with just the single teaspoon, so I have no plans to double up. I love the idea of adding citrus zest to the batter. I'm making another loaf for dinner tonight (clearly, I'm obsessed) and I think I'll try some orange zest. Thank you for the inspiration! Also, it's funny that you should mention Ballymaloe, as just last night I was reading this interview with Rory O'Connell, co-founder of the Ballymaloe Cookery School. (That place looks like heaven.) If you have a moment, and you don't mind sending it, I would love to have a look at that recipe and give it a go. (You'll find my e-mail address in the about section up top.) Thanks!

Nachshon said...

looks delicious as always :)

Jess said...

Thanks, friend. (Also, hi! It has been too long.)

Darby O'Shea said...

Jess- Just popped your recipe into the oven and, though I don't know what the end product looks like yet, the dough was much tastier than my original! (Yes, I taste every bread dough I make. I like dough.) I did eventually settle on 2 t soda (as they suggest in their retested recipe), but I'm CONVINCED that there's 1. too much flour and 2. too little liquid in their recipe. Grr. Gourmet would NEVER have done this to us. At least the photos were pretty.

Anonymous said...

Hello! I just made this bread with a few substitutions (given what I had around) and it was PERFECT for a thrown-together-brunch.

So: if you don't have buttermilk, skim milk with 1 T of white vinegar/cup works. No ground flax seeds? Sprinkle whole ones on top! Perfect when spread with butter and apricot jam, alongside scrambled eggs and fruit salad.

It came out tall, fragrant, and truly bready, which amazed me for a 1 hour (start-to-finish, including washing a mixing bowl in the beginning) bread. Thanks, Jess! Next time, I may make soda rolls for an even quicker product.

Jess said...

Darby and Anonymous - Hooray! Your success stories are music to my ears.

Thanks for the dough-to-dough comparison, Darby. You can eat all the dough you want, my friend. I do not judge.

Anonymous, thanks for the substitution tips. Butter and apricot jam. Oh yes. And I love the idea of making this bread as rolls.

Anonymous said...

Hi! Same Anonymous here, with an update on the rolls: they were bad. Lost a lot of moisture from having so much exposure to the oven and I really missed the lovely spongey inside texture of a slice.

Since I can't really afford to throw away food, I re-conceptualized them as whole-meal, flax-seedy English muffins, and they are ok toasted with a layer of butter and jam. Better and heartier than store-bought, and they have the requisite nooks and crannies for butter to pool. Definitely get me through a morning. But I miss the loaf-form and won't make the rolls again.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jess,
it's Grace from the non-fiction workshop! Unsurprisingly, I can't get enough of your blog and am especially keen to try this soda bread recipe. I'm completely new to bread baking, but really excited about the prospect of impressing my parents with perfect toast.. I'll let you know how it goes!
Hope the end of the semester wasn't too stressful for you. I'm so glad we met in that wonderful workshop!
Grace

wandering educators said...

YUM, yum, and super yum. i make an irish brown bread that is similar, but with yogurt. this sounds just as delicious - can't wait to try it! thanks to molly for sending me this way.

d-made said...

I've made this twice now and am enjoying it for breakfast toast. I didn't have brown sugar, so I subtituted Raw sugar and a little light molasses.

LizzieBee said...

Hello hello, I too have given up on soda bread, so I'm thinking I'll try this recipe! But - do you think the sugar is 100% necesary? Or does it simply add a hint of sweetness? I'm also going to try it with spelt flour... :)

Jess said...

wandering educators - Very glad you wandered this way. Welcome! I hope you'll enjoy the bread.

d-made - I love this bread toasted, too. Thanks for letting me know about your success with the substitutions.

LizzieBee - Hello! I unfortunately don't know enough about food science to tell you if the brown sugar is doing something important in terms of texture or structure. I do like the mild sweetness it adds. Ideally, I always try to make a recipe as is once before altering it, just so that I have a baseline. But if you don't eat sugar at all, I wouldn't want you to waste your ingredients and your time. The one thing I would suggest is that, if you're going to try more than one alteration (omitting sugar, subbing spelt flour), you do only one at a time. Leave out the sugar the first time, say, then try with the different flour. That way, you'll be able to isolate what's working and what isn't. Also, I'd recommend swapping only the whole wheat flour for the spelt flour. Without any white flour at all, this loaf would be too heavy, I think.

Ena said...

Thanks to Orangette for linking this wonderful bread. I made it yesterday and it is absolutely wonderful! Plus, it's so easy to make, I think this is my new favourite recipe for bread, no kneading, no waiting, simply great! I didn't use buttermilk since I didn't have it but put 4 tablespoons of milk in a measuring cup and then poured yogurt until it reached 2 cups, mixed it up and added it to the batter (I read that tip online since I didn't have lemons or white wine vinegar either).

P.S. Your blog is so lovely, I first found out about it via Orangette when she posted link for your whole wheat apple cake which is one of the best cakes I've ever made or tasted.

Jess said...

Hi, Ena, and welcome! I'm so glad that you're enjoying the bread. I have to tell you, I read your comment first thing this morning, and got the urge to bake a loaf myself. So I did! It's cooling right now on my table. Thank you for the kind words about this blog -- and that cake! I'm grateful to Molly for sending you my way.

balderton said...

Great writing with the line, "Sometimes, you have no idea what you’re looking for until it’s on the table, staring up at you through a layer of raspberry jam."

Jess said...

Thanks, balderton! So kind of you to say.

Anonymous said...

Just made a loaf of this today. I didn't have any instant oatmeal so I used three tablespoons of Bob's Red Mill mighty tasty cereal. It came out so good, really a make again bread.

Maureen said...

What are instand oats? Can you sub in quick cooking oats?? Thank you for this great looking recipe

Jess said...

Hi, Maureen. Yes, I use Quaker "Quick - 1 Minute" oats here. And in a pinch, when I've had only regular rolled oats on hand, I've just spilled them onto a cutting board and given them a few passes with a chef's knife. You just want them small enough so that you don't have big oaty flakes in the bread. Enjoy!

Maureen said...

Thanks Jess!

Rachel L said...

Do you think this would freeze well? This looks like an amazing recipe and I've been dying to try it but living alone I don't eat bread very quickly. How do you usually store it and for how long?

Jess said...

Hi, Rachel. I've never frozen it, and I'm afraid I'm not sure how to advise you. I keep mine on the counter, covered, at room temperature for 2-3 days. (It doesn't last any longer than that at our place!) The crust loses its faint crunch, but it's still very good, especially toasted. Maybe you could bake a loaf and give half of it away to a lucky soul? If you do try freezing it, would you please report back? Would love to hear how it goes.

Christine said...

Okay, so I just made this tonight and cannot rave about it enough. Took only 10 minutes to make, tops, even with my 2-year-old racing around behind me. Oh and I didn't have buttermilk — subbed 2% with 2 tsp of vinegar. Turned out beautifully in 35 minutes, and the whole family couldn't stop eating it at dinner.

I'll be making this over and over and over and over... Thanks a million for my new favorite recipe!

M said...

I was tired and didn't pay close attention to my measures. Once I started mixing in the buttermilk I realized I used a 1/3 cup measure instead of 1/4. Oops! To compensate, I added extra buttermilk until the dough came together. Luckily, I had been quite generous with the baking soda, so it rose fine. However, it took an hour to bake through. The bread was still delicious and is truly wonderful as toast!

hydrolagus said...

A while back someone asked if this bread makes good cinnamon toast. I made the recipe for the first time this weekend and can answer: yes, this bread makes stunningly awesome cinnamon toast.