History — Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread (2024)

History of Soda Bread.

News: My book “The History of Soda Bread” is in process and hopefully will be released in 2024. To be notified of its release, send an email to SodaBreadSociety@Gmail.com

If you are are writer and use this research for your article, credit would be appreciated.. Ed O’Dwyer :Society For the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread

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The Beginning

In the early 19th century, a Soda Bread recipe surfaced in 1836 and was published throughout the UK. It even crossed over to the US and was published in numerous Agricultural newspapers. It quietly had to wait its moment in culinary history. However, it wasn't until after the tragic Famines of 1845-1852, claiming the lives of one million Irish, that Soda Bread took center stage as a quick and easy bread that served as the base for other recipes.. Mainly because wheat was once again available in Ireland and foreign flour was available.

The Post-Famine Emergence: A Culinary Response to Hardship

During the famine years, Irish grain was exported to England while Corn and Corn Maize was imported from the US. In this challenging time, Soda Bread was known, but the lack of wheat and bread soda (baking soda) kept it from becoming a staple on Irish tables. Born out of necessity rather than choice, Corn maize became the main source of food during the famine.. The original recipe, dating back to 1836, featured four simple ingredients: Flour, salt, (an acid to interact with the Soda), and Bicarbonate of Soda.

The acid element initially involved dilute hydrochloric acid, but practicality led to the adoption of sour milk or buttermilk left from butter-making. This not only made Soda Bread more readily available but also eliminated the risks associated with handling acid. Despite that, cookbooks using Hydrochloric Acid as an ingredient were still being publishing in the early 20th century.

The Irish-American Connection: Famine, Migration, and Culinary Exchange

Contrary to a common misconceptions, the Irish did not import the Soda Bread recipe from the American Indians. This misconception is my fault because 30+ years ago on the original site I happened to mention Native Americans using Potash to make bread. Newspapers took that one bit of information and translated it into “Native Americans invented Irish Soda Bread.” The only link to America was the Potato Blight. The potato blight that triggered the Potato Famine may have originated from America and crossed to Europe and the UK, leading to a devastating migration of one million Irish to America in the following years.

The chemical magic between baking soda and an acidic substances was a discovery made by many scientists, but the unique combination of flour, salt, baking soda, and buttermilk eluded many of them but eventually it became the recipe of the daily bread in Ireland in the second half of the 19th century. Remarkably, it remains a cherished part of Irish cuisine to this day.

Flour Matters: Soft Wheat's Enduring Legacy

A distinguishing feature of Baking Soda (Bread Soda) is its ability to work on soft wheat flour, a preference that persisted despite other parts of Britain favoring hard wheat flour and moving away from quick breads. In 1908, a significant portion of Ireland's flour, especially in Belfast and Dublin, was soft wheat imported from the United States. This enduring link across the sea solidified the connection between Ireland and Soda Bread.

British Recognition and the Journal Entry: An Insightful Glance into History

In 1866 and 1868, British publications acknowledged Soda Bread's popularity in the United States, emphasizing its consumption. However, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence in cook books of the time to support that theory. An illuminating entry in the 1861 journal "Chemistry and Chemical Analysis" by the Ireland Commissioners of National Education explained the chemistry behind Soda Bread, highlighting its lightness and wholesome properties despite the absence of yeast fermentation.

Although it is very desirable that bread should be light, it is not always possible to obtain yeast: - hence, what is called "soda bread" has been of late, very much used. Its lightness is due to carbonic acid, disengaged from bicarbonate of soda. The latter is mixed with the flour, and is decomposed by an acid -- sometimes, by that contained in sour milk, but more conveniently by dilute hydrochloric acid. This kind of bread has not the advantage of its constituents being even slightly broken up, by incipient fermentation; nevertheless, it is said to have properties, which render it at least as wholesome as that which is made with yeast.

The "Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science" published in 1850 (p. 182) refers to unscrupulous dealers:

During the failure of the potato crop, a large quantity of bicarbonate of soda was employed by the poorer classes in the preparation of bread; the article consequently became scarce, owing to the increased demand, and the price rose accordingly.


Unraveling the History of Soda Bread and Bicarbonate of Soda

In 1817, the editor of The Gentleman's Magazine in London faced a challenge: devise a better bread-making method for poor-quality wheat. Choosing to forego leaven, he concocted a recipe using wheat flour, mealy potatoes, salt, water, soda, and muriatic acid.

His experiments involved mixing carbonate of soda with flour and the pulp of steamed potatoes, combining them with diluted muriatic acid. The result was a unique bread, resembling soda bread without potatoes. In a 9 lb cake with added ingredients, costing two shillings and sixpence, he found an affordable alternative.

In November 1836, The Farmer's Magazine cited a recipe for "soda bread" from the Newry Telegraph, emphasizing its health benefits. The method involved wheaten meal, salt, super-carbonate of soda, and very sour buttermilk, creating a soft dough baked to perfection.

A correspondent of the Newry Telegraph (a newspaper in Northern Ireland) gives the following receipt for making "soda bread," stating that "there is no bread to be had equal to it for invigorating the body, promoting digestion, strengthening the stomach, and improving the state of the bowels." He says, "put a pound and a half of good wheaten meal into a large bowl, mix with it two teaspoonfuls of finely-powdered salt, then take a large teaspoonful of super-carbonate of soda, dissolve it in a half a teacupful of cold water, and add it to the meal; rub up all intimately together, then pour into the bowl as much very sour buttermilk as will make the whole into soft dough (it should be as soft as could possibly be handled, and the softer the better,) form it into a cake of about an inch thickness, and put into a flat Dutch oven or frying pan, with some metallic cover, such as an oven-lid or griddle, apply a moderate heat underneath for twenty minutes, then lay some clear live coals upon the lid, and keep it so for half an hour longer (the under heat being allowed to fall off gradually for the last fifteen minutes,) taking off the cover occasionally to see that it does not burn. This he concludes, when somewhat cooled and moderately buttered, is as wholesome as ever entered man's stomach. Wm . Claker , Esq., of Gosford, has ordered a sample of the bread to be prepared, and a quantity of the meal to be kept for sale at the Markethill Temperance Soup and Coffee Rooms. Farmer's Magazine.

This exact word-for-word article also appeared in "The Southern Planter" published in 1843. The above is the earliest reference to a soda bread recipe in Ireland we have come across

The 1836 patent granted to John Whiting, M.D., of Kennington, England, outlined another method for preparing farinaceous food using wheat flour, carbonate of soda, and muriatic acid. This method closely resembled the making of soda bread, with detailed instructions for optimal results.

The introduction of pre-packed "Royal Baking Powder" in 1835 marked a shift, combining bicarbonate of soda with cream of tartar for a reliable alkali/acid pairing, revolutionizing bread-making. Meanwhile, baking soda found its way into Ireland around the 1840s, with the mystery of its introduction yet to be unraveled.

While Britain primarily used baking powder in the 1830s, soda bread in Ireland continued to be made with Bread Soda, not baking powder, as per interviews collected by the Folklore Commission of the Republic of Ireland between 1937-39. The reasons—tradition or price—remain unclear.

The U.S. witnessed the incorporation of "The Royal Baking Powder" company in 1873, separate from its British counterpart in 1835. In 1846, Americans John Dwight and Dr. Austin Church started producing bicarbonate of soda, with Church's earlier experiments dating back to the 1830s in Rochester, NY.

The intricate history of soda bread and bicarbonate of soda unfolds, marked by experimentation, patents, and shifts in bread-making practices, weaving together the stories of the English and American contributions to this culinary legacy.


The iconic cow trademark, representing the acidic agent needed for activation, persisted until 1960.

The Journey of "Saleratus" (Baking Soda):

"Saleratus" means baking soda, and in 1867, Church's sons formed Church & Co., introducing the famous "arm and hammer" logo.

The 1896 merger birthed Church & Dwight, Inc., applying the trademark Arm & Hammer, initially for baking soda, to various products today.

The Acid Side of the Equation:

Sour milk played a crucial role in soda bread making, a practice mirrored in both Ireland and the U.S. In the 1930s, clever marketing led to the sale of sour milk, which would typically be discarded by creameries. Today, buttermilk has replaced sour milk, though it differs from its 19th-century counterpart.

For those wanting to recreate the traditional experience, waiting for milk to sour or using substitutes like lemon juice, vinegar, or cream of tartar in fresh milk are options. Saco Cultured Buttermilk blend, a convenient powder needing only water, offers a modern solution and claims to produce a traditional buttermilk flavor. Find it in the baking aisle for a taste of history at home or on camping trips.


History — Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread (2024)
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