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The Little Tale of Sister’s Irish Soda Bread

In what has become an annual tradition here at PFL, here is a reader-favorite blog we posted a couple of years ago about Irish Soda Bread—and the secret and venerable recipe for it. If you’re thinking, “What does this have to do with direct mail and marketing?” the answer is: “Nothing.” We just want you to enjoy the story and make the bread—something special to eat with your St. Patrick’s Day dinner, whether you’re Irish not. It really is the best. As is PFL.

“Sister” Gilbride was the cook/baker in my family. She was my great aunt—real name, Catherine—and her Irish soda bread recipe is one I’ve been using for many, many years. [“Sister” was just one of the nicknames my mother’s family was riddled with: Sister, Baby—Sister’s and my grandfather Frankie’s sister, ergo, another great aunt), Sugar (my mother), Charlie the King, Cibby, Mamie, and probably more I never heard of. For the sake of comparison, my father’s side of the family tended to me more uppity—what were called “lace curtain Irish”—where names such as Cyril (my father) and Anastasia (his sister), were as whimsical as they got.]

But this is all about Irish soda bread. Have you ever had it? If so, was it a puny cellophane-wrapped yellowish loaf tied with a Kelly-Green ribbon and dusted with powdered sugar? I thought so. Pretty lame, right? Well, Sister would have none of that, for, every year, she would make three or four or five loaves of what she considered to be the real deal. I have no knowledge of her recipe’s provenance. It was simply the only—and the best—Irish soda bread I ever had, and the only one I will eat. I, too, now make multiple loaves every year for all who want one.

Wash down with pots of tea

As it turns out, the history of soda bread is more interesting than one would imagine for a food that has barely a handful of ingredients. “This simple Irish classic is a staple in many households, used to mop up hearty stews and wash down pots of tea,” writes a site called Trafalgar. “It’s also a symbol of celebration, baked in droves in the lead up to Saint Patrick’s Day. . . . While soda bread is most famously attributed to Ireland, it was actually first created by Native Americans. They were the first to be documented using pearl ash, a natural form of soda formed from the ashes of wood, to leaven their bread without yeast. The Irish later discovered and replicated the process.”

So, for all we know, local Montana tribes could have been making some form of soda bread for hundreds of years before the Irish.

There are, however, some controversies surrounding this staple. For one, the shape of bread is also steeped in tradition. Trafalgar again: “The Northern regions of Ireland divide their dough into four triangular shapes, with each triangle cooked on a flat griddle. The Southern Irish regions bake their loaves in a classic round fashion and cut a cross on top of the bread. This was done for superstitious reasons, as families believed a cross on top of the bread would let the fairies out or ward off evil and protect the household.” Since my people are, as best I can determine, from the south—County Mayo area—Sister’s bread recipe is the classic round with the cross cut in the top. Fairies optional.

Leave the eggs out

Another matter of contention is, what else goes into the bread? First, if there is an egg in your recipe, it is NOT traditional soda bread. Let that be on your head if you make one with egg. Beyond that, according to Trafalgar again: “While the basic ingredients have remained the same, many Irish families add their own extras like raisins, caraway seeds and honey. No two soda breads are ever the same, and you’ll find all sorts in bakeries.”

For Sister’s recipe, the only options are raisins or caraway seeds, or both. That’s it. The resulting bread is hard on the outside, firm yet soft on the inside, and receptive to as much butter as you care to slather on it.

Here is Sister’s recipe. I have been making it for decades, and, if their ability to eat it is any indication, my kids and their kids will be making it long after I am gone—the way I am long after Sister. Please try it. It will make your St. Patrick’s day special. . .and it will make Sister happy. As the Irish say: Ithe go maith! Eat well.

Sister’s Irish Soda Bread


  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 ½ tsp baking soda
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 tsps baking powder
  • ½ cup Crisco
  • 1 cup (plus more as needed) buttermilk
  • Raisins and/or caraway seeds to taste


  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Sift together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and sugar.
  3. Cut in Crisco and mix (hands work best here).
  4. Add raisins and/or caraway seeds to taste.
  5. Add buttermilk and mix into a biscuit-like dough. Add more buttermilk by the tablespoon as needed.
  6. Knead for a few minutes, then shape into an oval loaf. Cut a cross in the top.
  7. Bake for 1 hour on an ungreased pan at 325 degrees