The first time I visited Ireland was in the fall of 2016. The previous year had been really intense for both Scott and me and we decided that the best way to soothe the unrest and mend the grief that lingered after losing Scott’s mom was with a trip we’d both always longed to take.
We spent a full two weeks exploring the country, resting our eyes on green landscapes and ocean views, exploring grand homes, and eating heartily at every stop.
Last spring, we went back. Scott wanted to see the Giant’s Causeway and visit the area of Northern Ireland where his grandparents had been from, and I wanted to stay in places where I could do some cooking. Because as good as the food was in the restaurants, I was itching to get my hands those amazing raw ingredients.
On that second trip, we stayed in an assortment of cabins, caravans, and short term apartments and I got to cook. I made eggs with dazzlingly orange yolks. I braised carrots, cabbage, and potatoes in butter. We bought pungent wedges of cheese at open air markets. And we ate it all with slices of nubbly brown bread.
That brown bread is ubiquitous in Ireland and nearly unknown here. Much like the soda bread that many of us are familiar with, it’s quick bread that’s leavened with baking soda. However, the magic of brown bread is in the flour that used to make it. It’s a course, stoneground flour that has a nutty, near-toasted flavor. I like this one from The Little Mill in Kilkenny, but King Arthur Flour also sells an acceptable version.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years thinking about that brown bread and how to make a loaf that is as close as is possible to the ones I had in Ireland. I’ve tried a number of recipes (and in the process learned that despite what some recipes say, eggs really have no place in this loaf) and finally settled on the recipe you see below. It’s actually quite simple, but absolutely requires the use of the appropriate flour. Nothing else creates the right texture.
If you get it right, the finished loaf should be crisp on the outside and very tender on the inside. It should have a bit of sweetness while not actually being sweet. It should walk a line between sturdy and crumbly. And it should be baked in a rectangular loaf pan, not in a freeform round.
It keeps in the fridge for about a week and freezes nicely. If you’re looking for something to make to help celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, I suggest this loaf!
Irish Brown Bread
- 2 1/4 cups whole meal flour
- 1/2 cup rolled oats plus more for topping
- 1/4 cup steel cut oats
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 1/4 cups buttermilk
- 2 tablespoons golden syrup or honey
- Preheat oven to 400°F/204°C degrees.
- Butter 8 x 4 inch loaf pan.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, rolled oats, steel cut oats, baking soda, and salt.
- Add buttermilk and syrup and stir until just incorporated. Try not to overmix, as that can lead to a tough loaf. It will look like a thick pancake batter and you might question whether it will cook into a loaf. I promise, it will.
- Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and smooth the top. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon rolled oats.
- Place the pan in the oven, bake for 20 minutes. When that initial time is up, rotate the pan and bake 20 more minutes. Check for doneness using a wooden skewer or cake tester. It is down when the tester comes out of the center mostly clean.
- When the loaf is finished, remove it from the oven. Let it cool in the pan for a few minutes and then tip it out and place it on a cooling rack.
- Let the loaf cool completely before slicing. It will keep on the counter for a couple of days, but for longer storage, either refrigerate or freeze.