Boston Brown Bread

BakingNew EnglandMolasses

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

  • 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 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°F 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 325°F 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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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

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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

123 Comments / Reviews

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Did you make it? Rate it!

  • Patricia Yoe

    My mum made it all the time growing up in Erie Pa. I make it the same way but add rasin dried cherries and pecans

  • Colleen

    LOVE this recipe!! Thank you!


  • Bridgette

    I’m definitely going to try the recipe. I’ve not made it in a long time. because I live by myself, but my son also grew up with it and loves it as well. He is now 19. When he was a baby and I had less time, I bought B&M’s brown bread and to this day, he still considers it more of a dessert than a dinner staple.

    I’m from Maine, and we ate our brown bread hot, spread with butter, or cold topped with butter and baked beans. On occasion toasted, but never fried. I don’t recall people eating it outside of our house either, but I just assumed it was because my parents were both of French Canadian decent. My grandfather was also a logger and one of the designated camp cooks. I believe this was something that they made at base camp.
    Growing up baked beans, brown bread, and franks were a weekly meal. Often Saturday nights, as leftovers were eaten cold for lunch on Sunday, the sabbath when my my spent minimal time in the kitchen. Sunday dinner was often a New England boiled dinner because it could be prepped on Saturdays and just put on the stove Sundays.

    As a side note, we did however fry our left over biscuits and dredged them in molasses as a breakfast staple the next morning. We also fried our hotdogs in butter, in a mandatory cast iron frying pan, the way I continue to make them to this day. :)

    Thank you, for allowing me to share great memories of a simpler time!

  • Lisha

    I came here hoping I could try this recipe using my Instant Pot and I’m happy that others have tried it with success! My father was from Massachusetts and I always enjoyed having baked beans and brown bread for Saturday dinner when visiting my grandparents. I live out west where most people have never heard of it. My mother would slice it, toast it in the toaster, and slather it with butter – delicious!

  • Karen

    I have made your Boston Brown Bread a few times in the past. But usually I don’t have the time to spend for the long time it takes to steam in a stovetop pot or in the oven. So I followed your recipe, then steamed it in my “Instant Pot.” I set my timer on it for “Manual Time-45 minutes.” It came out perfect! There are recipes out there to make it in the Instant Pot. But the ingredients are not the same. I love your recipe, so I tried it in my Instant Pot=perfect in less than 1/2-the time.


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