Where does soda bread come from?

Why, America of course. What, you thought it was Irish? Perish the thought! It was Native Americans who first invented chemical leavening, using ashes as they did to “lighten” grain cakes. How did that work? you might ask. Well, ashes contain alkaline salts. Put them into a wet grain porridge and the result will be bubbles. Not a lot of bubbles mind you, but enough to make a difference in the cooked porridge cake’s texture. Of course the flavor is another matter, but that didn’t seem to bother the Indians much.

It wasn’t until the mid-1700’s that colonists in the Americas caught on to what the locals were doing. Those were the days when chemists first isolated potassium carbonate (the alkaline salt I mentioned) from wood ashes, and realized that it could be safely used to leaven breads when combined with water or an acid like sour milk or diluted hydrochloric acid. The technique quickly caught on in the colonies and soon after in Ireland, where the natives faced similar bread-making challenges: a lack of bread ovens, baking know-how and a steady supply of the finely ground, hard (gluten-rich) flour you need for yeast-leavened bread.

Chemical leavening was a relative no-brainer. It was easy to mix and could raise even the most stubborn rough-ground grain paste into something resembling bread. Better yet, you didn’t need an oven (a brick oven or a kettle “Dutch” oven) to use it. Chemically-leavened breads would rise on a skillet. What’s not to like? The idea caught on all over the British Isles in the 1830’s and 1840’s but nowhere more so than Ireland, which is why these days, at least in America, we call it “Irish” soda bread.

6 thoughts on “Where does soda bread come from?”

    1. I’m open to the argument…send me some documentation if possible since I’d be curious.

  1. I have to find this out for homework, I guess the teacher will tell us weather it comes from Ireland or America.

    1. Hi Joshua!

      It all depends on your frame of reference. The Irish invented what we now think of as “soda” bread: a dense wheat bread raised with baking soda. I wrote this post as I did to highlight the fact that Native Americans used a type of chemical agent — wood ashes — to leaven their “bread” which was made with corn meal. Ireland is really the correct answer to your question. Forgive me for trying to be too clever!

      – Joe

      1. If you were ‘trying to be too clever’, the sarcasm in your opening lines was completely unnecessary. Interesting article otherwise. The correct answer then is indeed, Ireland; as the native American bread would be barely recognised as genuine soda bread.

        1. Hey Noel!

          No, sarcastic isn’t the term…the attempt was more at playfulness, but I might have failed at that. No question that Native America chemical leaveners wouldn’t have produced anything like an Irish soda bread (obviously they didn’t have proper wheat or milling). My point I suppose is that if there’s a prize for who was using alkaline agents to lighten “breads” first, it would go to the Native Americans. They’d been using ashes as a lightening agent for grain cakes for thousands of years before Europeans ever showed up. That’s all I was getting at here. Thanks for the comment!

          – Joe

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