During the week I spotted a Twitter conversation about bread, and it came to soda bread and how to make it if you don’t have buttermilk handy. Buttermilk is difficult stuff to get hold of sometimes – we couldn’t even find any in the mahoosive Bar Hill Tesco “extra”… but Waitrose in St. Ives came to the rescue. I’ve struck this problem before. Soda bread is a very quick alternative to yeasty bread… and while I prefer the latter I do have a place in my heart for the convenience of the former. In the past I have resorted to using milk acidified with a squeeze of lemon juice. However, thought I, how about sour beer?
— Yvan Seth (@ale_is_good) March 7, 2014
Part of the action that makes soda bread work is the combination of acidity and bicarbonate of soda, without the acidity you’d just not get enough *puff* to lighten the crumb. But buttermilk isn’t just about acidity – it has a richness and creaminess that contribute to the soft texture of bread… so any old acidic liquid isn’t going to work. Thus I’ve worked out a mix of milk and beer that does the job.
First step… a touch of total nerdery… what’s the pH of buttermilk? It turns out that for the buttermilk I bought it was 4.4… so I aimed to replicate this with a beer and milk mixture. I chose to use Gueuze 1882 from Brouwerij Girardin and Kriek from Brouwerij Boon for this experiment – and they turned out to both have a pH of 3.6. Mixed with milk to a ratio of 5:3 (beer:milk, i.e. 125g of beer plus 75g milk) this yielded a 4.4 pH in a creamy-curdled milky mixture.
I made 3 loaves to this template, based on a HFW recipe on the River Cottage website:
- 250g plain flour
- 200g liquid
- i.e. buttermilk or 75ml milk + 125ml gueuze/kriek/lambic of your choice.
- 1tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 0.5tsp salt
Mix the ingredients together quickly, adjust with milk or flour as needed to make a smooth and slightly tacky dough – it should be quite soft. Do not overwork the dough. I found the buttermilk mix needed a touch of milk to wet it and the beer mixes both needed a touch of flour to dry them. Very lightly knead to shape, pop onto a baking tray, slice an X across the top of each loaf, then into a 200C (gas 6) oven. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes – until you can insert a knife into the loaf and feel no resistance drawing it out again.
The end result was fantastic. The guezue and kriek loaves are both soft and well “puffed” with a similar crumb to the buttermilk one. If anything they’re a little less soft and just a little less risen – with just a touch more rubbery bounce in them. Adding more fat could help – using a 1:1 beer milk ratio might be enough. When eaten warm you’d not notice this at all however – and the beer ones really shine when warm, the beers are present in flavour and even more so in aroma.
Even when nibbled on cold a few hours later the flavours of the beers are present, subtle yet clear. The kriek one especially injects a ghost of cherry to the sinuses as you chew it. But for maximum effect I suggest enjoying fresh and warm with a generous spread of butter.