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.

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°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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Links:

Boston Brown Bread Ice Cream - from David Lebovitz

Boston Brown Bread

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

163 Comments / Reviews

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Did you make it? Rate it!

  1. Elizabeth

    I grew up eating it warm out of the steam with cream cheese.

  2. Lynn

    I make Baked Beans regularly, in an old traditional bean pot. 325°f about 5hrs. I look forward to steaming (baking) this bread at the same time. If I start the bread early enough, it will be cooled & set in time.
    My oven has room for a deep roasting pan for my old pudding mold (why not use it, right?) but I’m unclear on whether to cover the roaster, since you cover the stove pot. The instructions don’t say. My pudding mold seals tightly, but my oven doesn’t seal well, so the “water bath” might just boil off.
    Cover? Don’t?
    Thanks!
    This all reminds me of the stranger-than-fiction Great Boston Molasses Flood.

    Show Replies (1)
  3. Michelle

    Does anyone know how to adapt this for the instant pot? Seems like a great candidate.
    Thank you! Making for father’s day for my husband from Bridgewater, MA

    Show Replies (1)
  4. Helen

    I grew up not far from Hank’s mother, in Manchester, MA, in the 70s. We would have canned brown bread, hot dogs, and baked beans on Saturday nights, not Friday, as we were Catholic and couldn’t eat meat on Friday. Mom made the beans from scratch in her bean pot she put in the oven. She used Navy beans, molasses, dried mustard, ketchup, onions and worcestershire sauce, and a big plug of salt pork. Another dinner we had was boiled dinner with ham, cabbage, potatoes, and carrots, and lots of mustard. Simple but delicious. Can’t wait to try Hank’s recipe. Thank you, Hank.

    Show Replies (1)
  5. Dawn

    Boston Brown Bread has been a family staple at Christmas for years in my family. My dad came across a recipe years ago in The New England Yankee Cookbook. The only way we ever had it was with cream cheese or butter. I’ve never heard of it toasted in a pan with butter topped with maple syrup. Sounds heavenly!

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