Irish Wheaten (Brown) Bread: Part 1

Oh… I predict many brown bread recipes in the future. For now, we’ll start with Part 1. This might not be everyone’s ideal brown bread, but it’s mighty tasty and will fill your home with a smell so lovely it will pull everyone into the kitchen.

Not to generalize, but I’ve been in a few Irish homes over the years and have always found two things on the kitchen counter, every day, without fail: basic sliced white bread and a sturdy brown bread. Next to them a tub of butter or margarine.

I love brown bread, and though most of what I’ve had in Ireland would simply be called Irish brown bread, there have been big differences in flavor and texture.

On my first trip to Ireland with my husband, many loaves were procured by his family from various vendors, but there was one that was distinctly different than the rest. It was square, smaller than usual, dense and slightly sweet, and I remember it to this day. Of course no one is quite sure who bought it or where it came from. I’m the only one who remembers it and the only one who sees any importance in trying to track down another. On subsequent trips I’ve looked but never found the illusive tiny square brown bread.

So what do you do when you can’t find something in a store… This recipe is a mishmash of many brown bread recipes. The first time I made it I meant to use half a cup of butter, but accidentally used a whole cup. It turned out great so we’re leaving the fat in, especially since this yields a big loaf. It would be different if we were talking about something tiny and tasty and–oops–suddenly you’ve eaten a cup of butter…

This is a delicate bread. It tastes great toasted but holds together better when not. It is slightly moist. It is slightly sweet, which I like, but you could probably leave the sugar out. I would keep the malt extract.

This would be a great bread to cut into big chunks, rather than slices and serve alongside soup, slathered in fresh tangy cultured butter.

Irish Wheaten Bread (makes one large loaf)

2 cups (480ml) wholemeal flour or Graham flour*
2 cups (480ml) whole wheat bread flour
1 cup (226g) cold unsalted butter cut into cubes
2 cups (480ml) buttermilk
1 teaspoon (5ml) salt
1 teaspoon (5ml) baking soda
1/4 cup (60ml) sugar
1 Tbsp. (15ml) barley malt extract/syrup
Extra wholemeal flour and oil to line pan and top bread
Butter and preserve of choice to serve
1 – 9 x 5 inch (23 x 13cm) bread pan

*I will do my best to try to explain the difference between what is called wholemeal flour in Europe and what we have here in the US. It is worth understanding because it does make a difference in the texture and flavor of the bread.

“Wholemeal” and “whole wheat” both mean the whole of the wheat berry has been used: the endosperm, the bran and the germ. With regular whole wheat flour, all three have been ground together to a uniform (usually fine) texture. With wholemeal or Graham flour, the endosperm has been ground fine, and the bran and germ kept coarse and mixed in. Wholemeal or Graham flour should have an irregular texture. If you stick your hand in the flour you will feel the shards of the bran and the germ throughout. Regular whole wheat flour will feel smooth by comparison.

For this recipe I cheated and went to a store specializing in imported products and bought Odlum’s Irish wholemeal flour. King Arthur makes an Irish-style wholemeal flour that is exactly the same. Otherwise look for Graham flour, which can be found in a lot of bulk sections of grocery stores. Bob’s Red Mill also makes it. Graham flour is named after the American Presbyterian minister Rev. Sylvester Graham, an early advocate for dietary reform. The only minor difference I have found between wholemeal and Graham is the color of Graham flour is slightly darker.

Irish wholemeal flour (Odlum’s brand)

Graham flour

Whole wheat flour (King Arthur brand)

Whole wheat bread flour

Preheat oven to 375° F (190° C).

Grease bread pan and dust with wholemeal flour.

Barley Malt Extract

Combine flours, sugar, salt and baking soda in large bowl and whisk together so that everything is evenly distributed.

Add butter and using a pastry cutter, a fork or your fingers work the butter into the flour until it resembles coarse crumbs.

Make a well in the center of the flour mixture. Pour the buttermilk and barley malt extract into the well and stir to combine. Don’t overwork the batter.

Add the batter to the prepared pan. Sprinkle with wholemeal flour.

Bake for 30 minutes at 375° F (190° C). Reduce the heat to 325° F (165° C) and bake for 30 minutes longer. The bread should be golden brown on top and firm to the touch. Leave the bread in the oven with the door slightly open for another 30 minutes. Remove from pan and allow to cool on a rack before slicing.