Boston Brown Bread

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Classic Boston brown bread studded with raisins and steamed in a coffee can.

Photography Credit: Elise Bauer

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.

Boston brown bread with franks and beans

Boston brown bread with franks and beans

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

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  • 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.

Ingredients

  • 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

Method

1 Prepare for either stovetop or oven methods: You can either make the bread on the stovetop with a coffee can, or you can make it in the oven with a coffee can or loaf pan.

Stovetop: 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.

Oven: If you are using the oven method, preheat the oven to 325° and bring a large pot of water to a boil.

2 Grease pan: Grease a coffee can or small loaf pan with butter.

3 Mix dry ingredients:  In a large bowl, whisk together the all-purpose flour, rye flour, corn meal, baking powder and soda, salt and allspice. Add the raisins if using.

4 Mix wet ingredients, combine with dry: 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.

5 Pour batter into can or pan, cover with foil: 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.

Cover the loaf pan or coffee can tightly with foil.

6 Prepare steam environment on stovetop or oven:

Stovetop: If you are using the stovetop method, set the can in the pot on the steamer rack. Make sure there is enough water in the pot to come up 1/3 of the way up the sides of your coffee can or loaf pan. Cover the pot and turn the heat to high.

Oven: 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.

7 Steam the bread: Steam the bread on the stovetop or in the oven 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, re-cover the pan and cook for up to another 45 minutes.

8 Allow bread to cool: Remove from the stovetop or 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.

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

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Hank Shaw

A former restaurant cook and journalist, Hank Shaw is the author of three wild game cookbooks as well as the James Beard Award-winning wild foods website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. His latest cookbook is Buck, Buck, Moose, a guide to working with venison. He hunts, fishes, forages and cooks near Sacramento, CA.

More from Hank

Links:

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

Showing 4 of 110 Comments

  • Maria Rubin

    I grew up in Massachusetts and made this yesterday with homemade Boston baked beans for a bunch of family and friends in Pittsburgh. Everyone loved it! I could have made 3 more cans of it and I bet there would be none left!

  • kim sayers

    we live with my grandparents until I was 14 and my grandfather was from Medford Mass( same as the Black Dahlia) by the way. his loving wife my Connecticut born grandmothe made Boston baked beans brown bread and hot dogs for him every Saturday night and that’s what we ate also of course. I never questioned it it’s just we ate every Saturday night. I’m going to try this wonderful sounding recipe although since we are vegan I will switch out the buttermilk for a plant-based milk. So happy to read all these comments and to know I wasn’t alone as a child with the family Saturday night menu LOL

  • BillP

    ‘Wait an hour’

    This is funny to me; no one waits 10 minutes, much less an HOUR… once the can is cool enough to handle without serious burns, run it under a cold tap, rotating as you do….if you greased your can properly, your loaf (log?) will firm up and contract enough to slide right out, ready to devour still hot!

    This one is a bit too “molasses-y” to what I’m used to, but still quite delicious! And at this ratio, should you want to use a coffee can, nowadays that cans are not remotely 16oz (more like 11.3oz) it fits perfectly. Will make again without adjustment.

  • Terry Hallahan

    Just made this for first time. I used a 4×8 foil pan in the oven, used raisins but not vanilla, did use rye flour as well. It came out fantastic. I am from New England, brown bread was eaten on a regular basis. We are having it today with and ham and homemade baked beans-Durgin Park recipe.

  • Ginger Britten

    I first remember having BBB when I was about 10 years old. We lived in Ft. Wainwright, Alaska. My mom was not from New England. She grew up in Honolulu, HI. She used to buy the canned bread in the store. We would have it sliced, toasted, or not, smothered with cream cheese. We didn’t eat it with a meal, just as a snack. This makes me want to buy a couple of cans and cream cheese. I can taste it now. Yummmm.

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