Irish Brown Bread: An Old Favorite, the P.K. Way

Prefer traditional Irish Soda Bread? Click here for my recipe. 

BrownBread_SlicesSt. Patrick’s Day will always hold a special place in my heart, and it’s not because I’m Irish. I’m not. But I did spend three years working in an Irish restaurant during high school, my first job in the industry. I have many fond memories of my time there, from bussing tables to waitressing to fending off rowdy bar patrons until 3 am. (Yup, that’s when my shift ended, and my dinner break was at midnight.) As you can well imagine, St. Patrick’s Day was a crazy night, complete with boisterous crowds, a live Irish band, and general merriment. Good times.

Anyway, it was there I was first introduced to authentic Irish brown bread, aka, Irish soda bread made with wholemeal flour, which was served in a wicker duck breadbaskets alongside traditional (white) Irish soda bread. I really enjoy soda bread but I adore hearty brown bread, which I consumed weekly throughout high school. I recapped more of my Irish memories last St. Patrick’s Day when I dug out some whole wheat soda bread from the freezer—no time to cook—and posted a number of fabulous photos from my trip to the Emerald Isle. I did have time to bake today, though, and I’m savoring a piece of fresh-from-the-oven brown bread while I write this post.

Brown Bread Bliss: Mixing Bowl to Stomach in Less Than an Hour

I poked around online for a starting recipe. The ingredients varied somewhat, not surprisingly, but all of them touted how quick and easy it is to make. Which is true. After a bit of research, I felt I had enough of a handle on the basic format and proportions to give my own version a shot, based mainly on this one. Here are the details.


  • 3 cups coarse whole wheat flour
  • 3/4 cups wheat bran
  • 1/4 cup wheat germ
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 tablespoons Irish butter, melted
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 tablespoon molasses
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk


Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Whisk together the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Whisk together the remaining four wet ingredients. Make a well in the flour bowl and pour the wet mixture into the center, stirring with a fork until fully incorporated (but with as little mixing as possible). The dough will be somewhat sticky. Turn it out onto a board and knead approximately 5-10 times. Shape the dough into a mound, flatten slightly, and use a sharp knife to cut a cross in the center about one-half inch deep. (The cuts need to be deep to allow the center of the bread to bake properly.) Bake 10 minutes at 400 degrees F, rotate the pan, then turn the oven down to 375 and bake an additional 30 minutes. The bread should be nicely browned and crusty and will sound hollow when tapped. Cool on a wire rack at least 5 minutes before cutting.

I can not tell you how good my house smelled while this bread was baking...

I can not tell you how good my house smelled while this bread was baking. I was so excited!

Baking Notes

Many recipes called for Irish “wholemeal” flour, which I could not find despite my trip to three stores this morning; this is why I elected to use a combination of coarse whole wheat flour, wheat bran, and wheat germ; coarse whole wheat flour on its own would have sufficed, I imagine. Do not use white whole wheat flour in this recipe (my favorite baking ingredient) which will not yield the flavor or crumb you want in this richly textured bread. Also, while this combination of sugars worked really well, as I found with my whole grain madness muffins, a combination of 2 tbsp sugar and 1 tbsp honey or molasses would also work if you prefer a less dense bread. Finally, the addition of raisins would be delightful. However, I planned to serve this bread not only on its own but also with cream cheese, smoked salmon, and dill for tomorrow’s lunch. Hence no raisins this time around.

Note that although the bread is traditionally served with Irish butter, warm from the oven, I ate two pieces before I even thought to add butter.

That’s how good it is.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Irish Recollections (May Include Year-old Soda Bread)

Bussing Tables in an Irish Pub: My First Restaurant Job

Still looking and tasting great, one year later! Click on the pic for the recipe.

At the tender age of 15 I began my first job at an Irish pub named Finn MacCool’s, which apparently is named after a giant, semimythical character from an ancient Gaelic legend (semimythical?). My first restaurant job of many, I bussed tables and waitressed throughout high school and on holidays during college. I have many, many stories to tell of those times, but suffice to say that it was there I developed a love of Irish brown and soda breads. And crispy, beer-battered fish and chips, I might add – my regular midnight dinner each Saturday to fuel the shift that lasted until 3am.

Holiday Cooking Plans Gone Awry

Now, most serious foodies and cooks take advantage of any situation to celebrate with seasonal food and drink, especially on a holiday. However, work and new car shopping beckoned today, so my plan of cooking and enjoying traditional Irish fare had to be simplified to its essence. And by that I mean beer, which may or may not be accompanied by a shot of neat Irish whiskey later this evening. (Evidently it’s traditional, or so I’ve gleaned from a recent NYT article titled “Sod off, scotch.”) I’m currently enjoying a Guinness while fondly remembering the many fine meals and beers that were consumed on our 2004 roadtrip throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland.

That said, I did make one thing, which was whole wheat Irish soda bread with raisins. Very, very delicious! You’ve heard me talk about white whole wheat flour and how it’s a wonderful substitute in many baked goods. (I challenge you to note a difference in brownies, for example, or pumpkin whoopie pies.)  My recipe perfectly melds the flavors of Irish soda and brown breads and the nuttiness of the white whole wheat works really well. How I would love to share the recipe with you! Alas, I can not.

Frozen Food to the Rescue!

Yeah, um, I actually made this bread last St. Patrick’s Day, and stored half in the freezer. It’s amazing how fast 365 days go by, isn’t it? I had no idea whether the loaf would be even remotely edible one year hence, but it really did taste the same (as I recall, anyway) and paired beautifully with my morning coffee. Unfortunately, I don’t remember exactly how I made it. How useless am I? (Don’t answer that.) I do know it was a hybrid of two recipes from Bon Appétit, one for brown soda bread and one for Irish soda bread (these are the closest approximations I could find) and that I substituted white whole wheat flour. I really need to get better about recording recipes that I create, I know, both for my own cooking purposes as well as to share with you.

The Freezer is Your Friend (But Remember What You Put In There and When)

While I’m fairly embarrassed to admit to you I’m consuming – nay loving – year-old soda bread, I have a few other points to make related to cooking and eating that come to mind. First, it’s probably obvious that generally things should not remain in the freezer for nearly that long, as it can impact taste and, in some cases, food safety. This was a very unusual circumstance and I tell you this story more for humor value than anything else. Sampling the bread was mainly an experiment, and I was fully prepared to toss last year’s loaf. I consider myself very, very lucky it was edible (luck of the Irish…soda bread?) and clearly it should have been eaten many months ago. I knew it was there, I just never got around to it. (Do note that it was wrapped extremely well, in plastic wrap, tin foil, and a heavy plastic bag, which no doubt preserved its freshness and flavor.)

That having been said, you all know that the freezer is my best friend, where soups, stews, sauces, and stocks await to assist me in eating healthfully when time is limited.  Baked goods like cookies, cakes, or sweet breads can also be frozen. There are two people in our home, you see, and a major reason I bake infrequently is because it tends to encourage over-consumption in our world. (I want so badly to make the Ranting Chef’s chocolate stout bundt cake! Talk about down-right dangerous. That baby would be tonight’s dinner-for-two. I’m barely kidding.) Best not to keep such things on hand, so when I do bake into the freezer things go for another time. Lots of treats keep well, so do consider storing extra portions or bring leftovers to work to share with friends and colleagues. Perhaps consider joining your local food swap group, if you have one like we do here in Boston.

Speaking of Ireland…

This story sounded better in my head (she says, munching on her fourth second piece of soda bread and sipping her third second Guinness). Ah, well. Perhaps a few photos from our trip to the Emerald Isle will make up for it?

Our trip through counties Cork and Kerry took us along the water’s edge with its many bucolic views and breathtaking cliffs.

We saw a LOT of sheep. In Ireland, they have a unique species that has a single bright blue spot.

Castle ruins were a common sight.

Yup, there are gorgeous beaches in Ireland, too. But look closely at the weird beachgoers.

We stumbled across the remains of many a stone fort, which are pretty cool.

They don’t call it the “Emerald Isle” for nothing.

Another castle, this time including cattle.

A park in Dublin. Know who this is? (Hint: obligatory theater reference)

PS. I wrote this post on St. Patrick’s Day, you’ll note, but I hope you had a great holiday weekend. If you had a little too much fun and find yourself struggling this Monday morning, check out this New Yorker article.

Also—seriously—don’t eat year-old Irish soda bread.