Irish soda bread leaves ancestral trail of crumbs


Irish soda bread is a fixture of Irish-American St. Patrick’s Day fare. / Photo from Wikicommons

There is no proof that St. Patrick was holding a slice of Irish soda bread when he drove the snakes out of Ireland (or, for that matter, that he drove the snakes out of Ireland). But the simple loaf has become synonymous with his feast day, at least in the United States.

It is through soda bread that many Irish-Americans remember their origins. In preparation for this year’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, two bloggers have graciously agreed to share their stories — and recipes — with American Food Roots’ readers about their connection to soda bread and their Irish heritage.

Four farls – a curiosity from Northern Ireland


Mary Bergfeld / Photo courtesy of Mary Bergfeld

Mary Bergfeld lives in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, but grew up in Chicago, Ill., where she had an Irish grandmother. The following story is reprinted from her blog,  One Perfect Bite. It was written in March 2010. 

 I was born to the green, but it’s been years since my family celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in an overt way. Those celebrations ended when my paternal grandmother, Maude, passed away. Maude was the grandchild of Irish immigrants, and was born here 30 years after the Great Hunger had ended.

She was, however, raised in a community so insular that she spoke with a soft lilting brogue and
retained that curious fusion of religion and superstition that some immigrants never put behind them. She attended Mass every day of her adult life and thought that the “Lives of the Saints,” with it’s graphic depictions of martyrdom, was the perfect picture book for children.
She spoke of banshees, told of sin eaters and warned of the Dark Man’s terrible wrath, but she wove these fiercesome creatures into lyrical tales of such beauty and redemption they’d make even the Irish poets weep. We learned about the “Hunger,” the “Troubles,” the “Drink” and the coffin ships that carried famine Irish to their deaths in the depths of an ocean they probably could not name.
Four farls is soda bread from Northern Ireland. / Photo courtesy of Mary Bergfeld

Four farls is soda bread from Northern Ireland. / Photo courtesy of Mary Bergfeld

Only Christmas and Easter were more important than St. Patrick’s Day to her. If she was staying with us for the holiday, we were expected to attend Mass before traveling downtown to see the parade and watch the Chicago river run green. There would, of course, be soda bread and colcannon and a bread pudding so soaked in Jamesons, that sobriety tests would probably be failed.

Once she was gone, we put aside the trappings of St. Patrick’s Day, and made a conscious decision to, instead, celebrate the Irish, and by extension, all immigrants, who braved the coffin ships to make new homes across the sea. Seven million people were driven from that island in the Irish Sea. Another million died of starvation in a passive genocide of which no one speaks. They spread across the continents and wrested something from nothing. It took some time, but they were successful whereever they chose to settle. They survived, “Irish need not apply.” They endured, “Irish keep the pigs in the parlor.” They triumphed and did indeed hang “lace curtains” at their windows. They even managed to put “a fine Irish lad” in the White House.
In our house, St. Patrick’s Day serves as a reminder of cruelty in the extreme and the capability of the human spirit to overcome, endure and triumph.
Over the course of the year, I’ve shared many Irish recipes with you. It’s fitting that the last comes on St. Patrick’s Day. Four Farls is the simplest of all the Irish breads to make. I recommend it to you as an oddity that serves as a reminder of how far immigrant communities have come. I hope a few of you will try it. The Irish peasant kitchen would have used whole meal to make the bread. I recommend using cake flour should you decide to make farls. For the record, they taste a great deal like a biscuit made without shortening. They really are not bad.
Editor’s note: Farls are the soda bread of Northern Ireland.

The perfect loaf

Linda J. Forristal / Photo from Drexel Universitiy

Linda J. Forristal / Photo courtesy of Linda J. Forristal

Linda Joyce Forristal is a food and travel professional who teaches at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pa., and blogs at Mother Linda’s. She went in search of the perfect loaf of her “ancestral” Irish soda bread. Following are excerpts from her post on the subject.

Trying to regain knowledge lost. A personal quest to retrieve lost heritage. These phrases describe the forces directing my search for the perfect loaf of Irish soda bread.
Several years ago my husband and I visited Ireland where we stayed in numerous bed and breakfasts. … Morning after morning, we were served a traditional Irish breakfast that included steaming hot tea, fresh squeezed orange juice and a generous helping of freshly baked Irish soda bread smothered with butter and jam. The bread at each B&B was different, but all were delightful.

 This experience was the beginning of a primal awakening. As I am of Irish descent on my father’s side, the flavors and textures united to stir in me the realization of ancestral knowledge, not quite remembered. Thus began my quest to find the perfect loaf of Irish soda bread. I obtained a couple of recipes from the owners of various B&Bs, but the measurements were in pounds, not cups, and given from memory, nothing like the recipes in most American cookbooks. Upon arriving home, I tried to re-create the wonderful breads I’d inhaled in Ireland, only to bring forth miserable imitations.

My search was not facilitated, to any great extent, by cookbooks readily available in America. Most of the standard cookbooks contain one, maybe two, very ordinary soda bread recipes. When I say “ordinary,” I mean that the recipes prescribed the most basic ingredients–flour, baking soda, and buttermilk.

Frustrated, I started hunting down more recipes. I first resorted to faxing hotels and B&Bs listed in tourist brochures. While the response ratio was not fantastic (due to the fact, I think, that some people guard their soda bread recipes like state secrets), I did receive some great recipes. But on return trips to Ireland, I have been more attentive and have not been afraid to ask for a recipe.

It would be hard to pick a favorite, though I have one. I suggest you enjoy them all with your favorite jam and forgo any diet just long enough to allow yourself some real butter. …

The ingredients you need to make Irish soda bread are sometimes hard to come by. I’ve heard stories of people hauling pounds of Irish flour back to America in order to make bread, but that is really not practical in the long run. What do you do when your stash of “good” flour dwindles? You look for the best-quality substitutes you can find.

In their original form, Irish soda bread recipes call for flours like Odlum’s Coarse Ground Whole Meal, wheaten meal or stone-ground whole meal flour. What all these flours have in common is that the wheat is crushed between millstones, producing flour with the texture of coarse sand and with the bran intact. Unfortunately, these flours, so pleasant to the palate and friendly to the digestive system, are not available on this side of the Great Pond.

After trying many American flours, the only type I can recommend is a better-quality stone ground whole wheat bread or pastry flour. … If the recipe calls for white flour, use an unbleached, unbromated flour. …

Another fundamental ingredient for soda bread is buttermilk, which is a modern-day substitute for sour milk. Lacking eggs and yeast, buttermilk and baking soda are the agents that make soda bread rise. Fortunately, buttermilk is readily available in America. However, choose a good one.  … Look for your own local source of back-to-the-basics milk, remembering that, like flours, milk products are not as adulterated in Ireland as they are here.


Linda Joyce Forristal went on a quest to find the perfect soda bread. / Photo courtesy of Linda Joyce Forristal

In regard to buttermilk, always be prepared to add or withhold a little from the recipe. Flours vary in their ability to absorb moisture, so more or less buttermilk will be needed, depending on the flour’s consistency and the day’s humidity.

In the past, an Irish woman’s claim to good housewifery rested on her ability to make a good loaf of soda bread. While that is not as true as it once was (mostly because of the advent of town bakeries), it is still a much-appreciated art, so much so that many restaurants have a resident soda bread baker on staff. …

… Before each loaf is placed in the oven, it is the custom to make a cross in the middle of the loaf with a knife. The gash should not be too deep, about 1/2 inch. … Some say it is a blessing to ensure that the bread turns out successfully. Others say it prevents the crust from cracking irregularly. …

An additional key to a perfect loaf is a proper cooking time, which will probably have to be adjusted from oven to oven. Don’t lament if your first loaf with a new recipe is under-or overdone. Just try again. …

After cooling, it is recommended that the loaf be stored in a damp tea towel to keep it moist. Some say that this should be done immediately after the loaf comes out of the over, but I prefer to wait until the loaf has cooled for about four hours.

There is one last point. You must buy a scale to weigh the flour. … There is just no way around it. Flours vary so dramatically that any attempt to create a multiplication table for the conversion of pound measurements to cups will be inaccurate. You don’t need to spend $100 for a good scale. I found a perfectly usable scale for under $20 at a gourmet kitchen store. You will find that the recipes come out much more consistently when you weigh the flour.

… Perhaps I’ll never know the exact bread my ancestors baked on the hearth or longed for after leaving Ireland, but my search for the perfect loaf has been cathartic and liberating, and the results of my search will grace my family’s table for years to come.


Makes 4 servings

Four Farls

This recipe is provided courtesy of Mary Bergfeld who writes the blog One Perfect Bite. Farls are the Irish soda bread of Northern Ireland. Bergfeld says they taste like biscuits made without shortening. Farl comes from a word meaning fourth. The flat bread is cooked on top of the stove in a skillet then cut in fourths.


  • 31/2 cups cake flour
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 11/4 cups buttermilk


Preheat a heavy-based flat griddle, skillet or frying pan over medium to low heat.

Whisk flour, sugar, salt and baking soda together in a medium pan. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the buttermilk.

Quickly mix ingredients to form a dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and knead to form a ball. Pat into an 8-inch circle about 1/2-inch thick. Cut into 4 pieces with a floured knife.

Sprinkle some flour over the base of a hot pan and cook farls for 10 to 15 minutes per side, or until golden brown. Be careful not to overcook. Serve warm.

Muesli Soda Bread

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, food and travel blogger Linda Joyce Forristal has shared a prized, secret recipe for her favorite Irish soda bread. She writes on her blog Mother Linda's: "About ten years ago, I met a woman on a flight back to the United States from Ireland. We chatted about Irish soda bread, and she recited one of her favorite recipes from memory. Made with muesli, it has become one of my favorites, too. ... If you are lucky enough to have a source of raw milk, measure out the required amount and set it in a warm place overnight to sour. The reason you need to sour the milk is to produce enough lactic acid to react with the alkaline baking soda, which produces carbon dioxide gas to raise the bread."


  • 3 cups spelt flour, sprouted spelt flour or 2¾ cups whole wheat flour
  • 2 cups muesli
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ cup butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1½ cups buttermilk, soured raw milk or yogurt


Preheat oven to 375 F.

Measure out the flour, muesli, and baking soda in a medium-to-large bowl.

Cut the butter into small pieces and then pinch them into smaller pieces working them into the flour with your fingers until you obtain a grainy texture.

Add the egg to the buttermilk and lightly beat to incorporate. Pour the milk-egg mixture into the dry ingredients and mix to make a thick, yet moist, dough. Be ready to add a little more buttermilk, soured milk or yogurt if necessary.

Turn the dough out on a floured piece of parchment paper and shape into a round loaf. Move the loaf to a parchment-lined baking sheet and cut a cross in the top of the dough.

Bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool overnight and serve for breakfast with lots of butter and jam.

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