Why Traditional Irish Soda Bread Has A Cross Is Carved Into It

Traditional Irish soda bread is an inherently practical style of bread. Made from as few as four ingredients, Irish soda bread transforms flour, salt, baking soda, and buttermilk into a nutritious loaf that varies in style but is always marked by the distinctive cross that crowns it. The flour that goes into real-deal old-school Irish soda bread is Irish wholemeal flour, which isn't the same thing we buy from the grocery store in 5 lb. bags. Irish wholemeal flour, Cook's Country explains, is made of whole wheat kernels, dried and ground into a coarse flour that BBC notes has less gluten than the white flour we know. That lower gluten content and coarse consistency gives Irish soda bread its flavorful, distinctive texture.

Irish soda bread is a quick bread, which means it uses the interaction of baking soda and buttermilk to make the bread rise, rather than yeast, according to The Real Word. BBC points out that Irish soda bread can be flavored with a variety of ingredients, like raisins, caraway seed, herbs, treacle, Guinness, and even seaweed. With such a range of flavors, why is it that Irish soda bread consistently has a cross atop each loaf?

Again, it's a practical consideration

BBC Travel writer Kathleen Mangan traveled to Ireland in hopes of perfecting the techniques her grandmother had used for her Irish soda bread; techniques Mangan previously tried and failed to master. When she asked master baker Mary Gleeson why Irish soda bread always has a cross cut into the top, it turns out the answer is a simple one. Mary said, "You have to cut a cross in the dough to let the fairies out." Cook's Country has a similar explanation for the cross on Irish soda bread. The source states that it's to let the devil out. Some consider the cross a blessing for the loaf, but it turns out there may be a less fanciful explanation.

When buttermilk and baking soda are combined, they produce carbon dioxide, which The Real Word explains expands the bread as it bakes. Scoring, or cutting a cross into the top of the loaf, allows the bread to expand without splitting in unexpected spots, according to Cook's Country. Whether made with yeast or with baking soda, bread rises, which is why a number of kinds of bread, like baguettes, are traditionally scored, so the finished product has a predictable, regular appearance. However, as any experienced bread baker knows, fairies or devils could easily be to blame for the inevitable baking flops that occur from time to time.