The history of a St. Patrick's Day favorite.
Credit: Bill Boch/Getty Images

Apart from potatoes and Shepherd’s Pie, perhaps the most famous food of the Emerald Isle is Irish Soda Bread, a simple classic that is baked in droves in the weeks and days leading up to Saint Patrick’s Day.

Today, this traditional treat is a symbol of celebration for many, relied on to soak up one-too-many green beers or whiskeys. However, the bread’s history in Ireland began more out of practical necessity than culinary fun.

Though soda bread is now most commonly attributed to Ireland, the first people to use soda to leaven their bread was the American Indians. These indigenous Americans were the first to be documented using pearl ash—a natural form of soda created from the ashes of wood—to leaven their breads without the presence of yeast. However, it wasn’t until this process was later discovered and replicated by the Irish that it earned a reputation worldwide.

Despite its hefty presence during Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations, the history of Irish Soda Bread doesn’t nearly date back to the days of Saint Patty himself—roughly 400 AD—but rather only a couple of centuries. Irish Soda Bread was first created in the late 1830s, when the first iteration of baking soda—or bicarbonate soda—was introduced to the U.K.

Due to Ireland’s financial strife and lack of access to ingredients, the inspiration for Irish Soda Bread was one of necessity, in order to make the most of the basic and inexpensive ingredients available: “soft” wheat flour, baking soda, salt, and soured milk.

For soda breads, “soft” wheat flour, a low-gluten variety of flour used in most quick bread recipes, is ideal, rather than the hard wheat flour most likely to be found in a yeasted bread. And, since Ireland’s unique climate is only suitable to growing wheat of the soft variety, soda bread became a perfect match for the country’s home cooks.

Soda bread was also an ideal Irish recipe as even families who lived in the most isolated of areas with little access to cooking equipment were able to create this simple and filling dish. Since many of the lower-class and farmhouse kitchens had no oven access at the time, the bread was cooked in iron pots or on griddles over open hearths. This unique cooking method resulted in the signature dense texture, hard crust, and slight sourness that soda bread is known for.

The unique texture of this bread is the result of a reaction between acid and baking soda that results in the formation of small bubbles of carbon dioxide within the dough. Sour milk was most commonly used in the early days of the bread’s history, thanks to its high acidity levels, but now buttermilk is typically used in its place.

Traditionally marked with a cross on the top, soda bread loaves got their signature appearance for superstitious reasons. Families believed if they cut a cross on the top of the bread that it would ward off evil and protect the household. However, the typical shape of the loaves varies by region. While the Southern Irish regions bake their loaves in the traditional fashion—round with a crossed top—Northern regions divide their dough into four pieces and cook triangle-shaped flat breads (also known as Farl) on a griddle.

Despite its humble origin and short history, Irish Soda Bread is a serious part of the country’s culinary identity; there’s even a Society For the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread dedicated to protecting this national treasure on Saint Patrick’s Day and beyond. To make a loaf of this beloved bread for your own green-tinted celebration, try this Classic Irish Soda Bread recipeor mix it up with this Irish Soda Bread with Raisins.