My grandfather was born and raised in Ireland. Although he died before I was born, his Irish roots ran deep in our family. My father and uncles made regular trips to the old country to visit relatives and returned with plenty of amusing stories to tell.
In time, I made several journeys back to Ireland myself and developed a decided kinship to the land of my forefathers. Like every traveller, I was introduced to the full Irish breakfast accompanied by slices of brown bread slathered in thick slabs of butter.
I aspired to master the art of the Irish loaf, and this year for St. Patrick's day, I'd like to share the results with you!
It’s a bit tricky to get a high, well-risen loaf out of bread that is made of one hundred percent whole wheat flour.
Normally, when water and white flour are mixed and worked together, strands of gluten develop, which give bread the muscle to rise. However, whole grain flour contains bran, which cuts into these strands.
This translates into a rather flat, slightly crumbly loaf. In fact, this bread will hardly rise at all in the oven, so what you see before you bake it is what you get.
The trade-off is the full, sweet, nutty taste of unadulterated whole wheat, which is enhanced when the bread is toasted.
Note that Irish flour is more coarsely ground than most American brands. To more closely approximate a true Irish loaf, I use stoneground flour and add extra wheat bran, both of which are available through Bob's Red Mill or Arrowhead Mills. You could also order King Arthur’s Irish-style flour from their catalogue.
The traditional method of making this bread—brief kneading and a single rising— makes sense in this context. It also simplifies the job of the baker.
Don’t skip the final step of turning the loaf out of the pan and setting it directly on the oven rack to bake for a few minutes longer. This ensures you will obtain the characteristic thick crust that is the hallmark of this bread.
I often make two small loaves because they can be sliced thinly and served in place of crackers for an appetizer—the perfect accompaniment to smoked salmon, fish pate, or bold cheddar.
In full disclosure, when we children were young, St. Patrick’s Day was usually celebrated with garish green-iced cupcakes (and if we were lucky, the sight of my nana doing an Irish jig). These days, I'd much prefer a slice of this Irish brown bread.
Irish Brown Bread
Look for bran and stone ground whole wheat flour with the specialty flours in the baking section of your grocery store. Two good brands are Bob's Red Mill and Arrowhead Mills, both of which can also be ordered online.
- Vegetable oil spray (for the loaf pan)
- 1 1/2 cups (350g) warm water (about 100°F)
- 2 tablespoons milk
- 2 tablespoons molasses
- 2 teaspoons active dry yeast (slightly less than one package)
- 1/2 cup (25 grams) coarse wheat bran, plus more for sprinkling
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 3 1/2 cups (450g) stoneground whole wheat flour
- 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
Prepare the pan(s):
Generously spray a 9-inch loaf pan (or two 8 by 3 3/4-inch loaf pans—disposable aluminum pans are the perfect size) with non-stick spray.
Mix and knead the dough by hand:
In a large bowl, stir the warm water, milk, molasses and yeast together and let stand until the mixture starts to bubble, about 5 minutes. Add the wheat bran, salt, butter and 2 cups of the flour. Beat vigorously with a wooden spoon in the same direction for 1 minute.
Add enough of the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until the dough is difficult to stir with a wooden spoon and pulls away from the side of the bowl.
Using one hand to hold the bowl, use your other hand to knead the dough in the bowl for a minute or two. The dough will stick to your hands but should pull away from the side of the bowl after about a minute. If necessary, add more flour, 1 tablespoon at a time. While the dough will be damp, it should not feel muddy.
Alternatively, mix with a stand mixer on medium speed with the paddle attachment, beating for about 1 minute until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
Shape the loaf:
On a lightly floured work surface, pat the dough into an oval shape approximately 9 inches long with the long side of the oval parallel to the edge of the work surface. Starting with the long side closest to you, roll the dough into a tight cylinder. Pinch the seam closed.
Flip the loaf over, so it's seam-side down. Tuck the ends under so the loaf is uniform and even. Place the dough in the pan with the seam side down.
(To make 2 small loaves, divide the dough in half and shape as above, making the oval 7 inches long.)
Let the dough rise:
Drizzle the vegetable oil on top of the dough and smooth it over the dough as you pat it into the corners of the pan. Sprinkle with extra bran, if you like. Cover the pan loosely with plastic wrap and let rise for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the dough rises about 1 inch above the top of the pan,
Heat the oven:
About 20 minutes before the loaf is ready to be baked, position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat it to 400°F.
Bake the loaf:
Place the loaf in the oven and immediately reduce the heat to 375°F. Bake for 35 minutes for a large loaf, or 25 to 30 minutes for 2 small loaves, or until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
Harden the crust:
Remove the bread from the oven and immediately turn it out of the pan. Place it directly on the oven rack and continue to bake for 7 to 10 minutes, or until the crust browns.
Cool the loaf:
Remove and set on a wire rack to cool. When thoroughly cool, store the loaves in plastic bags.
The bread is best eaten on the day it’s made, but after a day or two it is still good toasted for breakfast or tea. Well-wrapped in plastic and then foil, the bread may be stored in the freezer for up to a month.