Boston Brown Bread

Holy North End Batman, this molasses-rich, dense brown bread from Hank is good. We’ve made it four times in the last month. Yum! ~Elise

Boston Brown bread makes me think of my mother, a native of Ipswich, Massachusetts. Disks of deep brown “bread”—brown bread is chewy, with a density approaching traditional pumpernickel—studded with raisins and fried in butter. Lots of butter. Brown bread was part of my mom’s weekly rotation, and it was always served alongside baked beans with plenty of salt pork in them, as well as hot dogs that, like the bread, were also fried in butter. Healthy, eh? Maybe not, but it sure hits the spot on a cold Saturday night.

Brown bread is usually steamed, not baked, in a hot water bath. You can do this in one of two ways, in the oven or on the stovetop. This bread will take some time to cook. The slow steaming helps soften the corn meal.

Traditionally brown bread is made in an old coffee can, but it can be made in any small loaf pan. Brown bread is dense, so you don’t need too much to get filled up. I recommend making only one batch at a time, I have found it works better than doubling up a batch.

In addition to being an accompaniment to baked beans and franks, we used to eat brown bread—again, fried in butter—for breakfast, drizzled with maple syrup. I have no idea how else to eat Boston brown bread. It was a curiosity in New Jersey, where we lived, and my mother was the only one I knew who served it. Any New Englanders out there? How do you eat your brown bread?

Boston Brown Bread Recipe

  • Prep time: 20 minutes
  • Cook time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
  • Yield: Serves 4-6.

Do your best to find the rye flour. It adds a lot to the flavor of the finished bread.



  • Butter for greasing loaf pans or coffee cans
  • 1/2 cup (heaping) all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup (heaping) rye flour
  • 1/2 cup (heaping) finely ground corn meal (must be finely ground)
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 1/2 cup molasses (any kind)
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
  • 1/2 cup raisins (optional)
  • One metal 6-inch tall by 4-inch diameter coffee can, or a 4x8 loaf pan


1 You can either make this in the oven or the stovetop, and you can either make this with a loaf pan or a metal coffee can. If you are using the oven method, preheat the oven to 325° and bring a large pot of water to a boil. If you are using the stovetop method, set the steamer rack inside a tall stockpot and fill the pot with enough water to come 1/3 of the way up the sides of your coffee can. Turn the burner on to medium as you work.

2 Grease a coffee can or small loaf pan with butter. In a large bowl, mix the all-purpose flour, rye flour, corn meal, baking powder and soda, salt and allspice. Add the raisins if using.

3 In another bowl, mix together the buttermilk and vanilla extract if using. Whisk in the molasses. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir well with a spoon.


4 Pour the batter into the coffee can or loaf pan taking care that the batter not reach higher than 2/3 up the sides of the container.


5 Cover the loaf pan or coffee can tightly with foil. If you are using the stovetop method, set the can in the pot, cover and turn the heat to high. If you are using the oven method, find a high-sided roasting pan that can hold the coffee can or loaf pan. Pour the boiling water into the roasting pan until it reaches one third up the side of the coffee can or loaf pan. Put the roasting pan into the oven. Steam the bread for at least 2 hours and 15 minutes. Check to see if the bread is done by inserting a toothpick into it. If the toothpick comes out clean, you're ready. If not, recover the pan and cook for up to another 45 minutes.


6 Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes before putting on a rack. Let the bread cool for 1 hour before turning out of the container.

7 Slice and eat plain, or toast in a little butter in a frying pan.

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Gluten-Free Brown Bread - from No Gluten Required
Boston Brown Bread Ice Cream - from David Lebovitz
Brown Bread Muffins - from The Dogs Eat the Crumbs

Boston brown bread with franks and baked beans

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Showing 4 of 103 Comments

  • GretchenJoanna

    Oh! This brings back memories of the many years when Boston brown bread was one of the staples produced by my own kitchen. The whole family with five children loved it, but never heard of frying it in butter! We got our recipe from the Laurel’s Kitchen cookbook and the loaves came out just like in your picture bottom right. I always made 6 or 8 loaves and froze half of them; we ate at least one as soon as they came out of the cans, with butter spread on. When cool we ate it as is with butter or plain, or warmed in a toaster first. I long ago threw out my coffee can “equipment,” but your post is making me long for the taste of this bread again!

  • CJ

    We used to get brown bread at the store–It came in a can, and we’d steam it. When it was hot out of the can we didn’t fry it in loads butter, just…ummm…spread it with loads of butter and ate it all moist and steamy. For the second eating, when it had lost some of its moistness, that’s when it was fried. In loads of butter.
    I never knew this was a totally local thing until I mentioned it in California, I must have spent half an hour trying to explain canned bread, and they still don’t get it. Of course going to the store and buying a can is out of the question, too, so now I’ll have to make this and show them! I bet it’s way better than the canned stuff anyway.

  • Don

    While living in Stow MA we would buy the bread and serve it toasted with butter, again, alongside beans and franks on Saturday. I think B&M made both the bread and the beans for us. Glad to see I now have a source to try it on my own, though I am short a coffee can… I’ll have to improvise somehow :-)

  • JulieT

    In the picture it doesn’t look like a traditional steamer rack in the stovetop method. Mine has all these pieces that fold out then load broccoli and fold in to start steaming. This would never work with a can. Can I set the can directly in the middle of the stockpot? Just trying to figure this out. Thanks.

    I use a fold-out rack like you have when I am at home. I can remove the center of the rack so a can will sit on it. Not sure about setting the rack directly on the bottom, though – could get too hot. Try setting the can on something else so the bottom is not getting the direct heat from the burner. ~Hank

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