We have much to thank Native Americans for. Indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere began cultivating corn 10,000 years ago (polenta, anyone?). The Incas built suspension bridges 300 years before Europeans did. The Inuits invented kayaks and snow goggles. Native peoples of South and Central America developed the technique of raised-bed farming. And they introduced early Americans to a new leavening agent that acted quicker than yeast, allowing bakers to make breads and cakes without the time-consuming process of leaving dough to rise before baking it. This leavening agent, potash, was the precursor to baking soda and baking powder, which we use to make quick breads.
Potash was made by mixing ash from hardwoods, like beech, maple or elm, with water, then draining off the resulting lye solution used to make soap. The remaining sludge was boiled down to potash, or “black salt,” which was used as a fertilizer and became a major export for the U.S. and Canada in the late 18th and early 19thcenturies. (This is where the word potassium comes from.) If the potash were refined in a kiln to burn off impurities, it became pearl ash (potassium carbonate). This water-soluble, strong alkaline solution, when mixed with a mild acid like sour milk, buttermilk or molasses, gave off carbon dioxide, causing breads and cakes to rise. Pearl ash was listed as an ingredient for gingerbread in the first American cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, published in 1796; this was the first recorded recipe for quick bread.
Although this refined form of potash is still used in some regions today, mostly for gingerbread, it often leaves a bitter, metallic aftertaste, so by the mid 1800s it began to be replaced in cookbook recipes by saleratus, which was made by adding carbonic acid to pearl ash to create potassium bicarbonate. However, this was soon replaced with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), made from sodium carbonate and carbon dioxide, because of its milder flavor.
Meanwhile, in England, a chemist named Alfred Bird was trying to develop a leavening agent for his wife, who was allergic to eggs and yeast. He came up with the idea of combining baking soda with tartaric acid (cream of tartar), a byproduct of wine-making, as well as a starch, to absorb moisture. This was the first baking powder. In America, Eben Norton Horsford is credited with patenting the first modern baking powder, using monocalcium phosphate as the acid that reacts with sodium bicarbonate to create carbon dioxide.
These non-yeast leavening agents revolutionized baking for the average housewife. No more keeping a starter alive from one baking day to the next. No more waiting for dough to rise before baking it. So for rural families living in impoverished areas, like Ireland in the mid-1800s, quick bread, and in particular soda bread, became a staple.
Quick bread refers to any bread made without yeast. We in America may tend to think of banana bread and blueberry muffins when we hear quick bread, but in the U.K., soda bread is probably more prevalent. This was attested to by the fact that every baker in the Great White Tent made some form of soda bread, with the possible exception of Ugne, who made a chocolate quick bread with salted caramel sauce that might be more similar to banana bread. Most of the others were savory flavor combos, although Paul (the contestant, not the judge), used the fairly traditional flavors of cranberry and orange in his soda bread.
My soda bread is an homage to Irish foods and flavors. Stout, of course, is the iconic beer of the Guinness brewery at St. James Gate in Dublin, where Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000-year lease in 1759. By 1886, Guinness had become the largest brewery in the world. Rye was grown in Ireland in the late 1800s for the distilling industry, and the straw was used for thatching. I sweetened my bread with malt extract. Also an ingredient in brewing beer, malt extract became popular after World War II as a nutritional supplement for undernourished children. It’s also used to make malt loaf — which I haven’t tried but I imagine tastes like my mom’s old-fashioned steamed brown bread — and is added to pretzel and bagel dough for a hint of sweetness and depth of flavor.
Quick breads truly are quick and easy to throw together. The hardest part is waiting for them to come out of the oven. The scent of homemade bread wafting through the air is one of the most tempting smells known to mankind (or womankind, for that matter), and I’m only slightly ashamed to admit that this was another bake my husband and I hoarded for ourselves. A thick slice of one of these rustic, homey loaves goes down just as easily slathered with butter and preserves with a mug of tea for breakfast as it does with a bowl of Irish stew for supper. This is one recipe I plan to make again, and again.
Rye & Stout Soda Bread
- 2 c. bread flour
- 2½ c. rye flour
- 1½ c. all-purpose flour, plus more for sprinkling
- ¼ c. brown sugar
- 10 T. butter, softened
- 2 t. baking soda
- 1 t. baking powder
- 1 t. salt
- 1 c. golden raisins
- 1-1½ c. buttermilk
- 1 c. stout beer
- ¼ c. malt extract (also called malt syrup)*
- ¼ c. rolled oats, to decorate
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, rub flours, sugar and butter together until mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add raisins, stirring well.
- In a separate bowl or measuring pitcher, combine 1 cup buttermilk, beer and malt extract. Gradually add liquid to dry ingredients, stirring just until dough comes together into a ball. If the dough seems dry, add a little more buttermilk. The dough should be fairly wet and sticky.
- Divide dough in half, and form each half into a large, round loaf. Place both loaves on the parchment-lined baking sheet, several inches apart. Sprinkle with the oats and a little flour, then use a sharp knife to score a deep cross on top of each loaf. Bake for 1 hour or until the bread is baked through and the crust is nicely browned. (It should sound hollow when tapped.) If unsure, check the internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer. When done, it should be 190°F.
*If you don’t have malt extract, you can use molasses instead. Just be aware that molasses is sweeter, so you may want to use less.