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

138 Comments / Reviews

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Did you make it? Rate it!

  1. Alyx

    My mouth watered, just reading the recipe. I miss the flavors of my childhood. Brown bread, slathered with butter and eaten with beans, hermit bars and fried clam bellies (not all together, though!) I grew up in Tyngsborough and Lowell, MA..

  2. Ann Rheault

    Really good recipe that fit just right in a coffee can. Did not have raisins so I substituted currants, and as they had been hanging out in my fridge for a looong time and were kind of crunchy I soaked them in some dark rum for 30 mins and strained them before adding to the flour mixture (drank the rum later). I steamed it on the stovetop in an asparagus steamer, which made it easy to remove from the boiling water -I just lifted out the basket and let it cool down in the basket on a cutting board. Toasted slices slathered in butter are great for breakfast. Also went well with baked beans. Unbelievably moist considering there’s virtually no fat added. Just delicious. The fam loved it.

    xxxxxyyyyy

  3. Jessie Holcomb

    I followed your recipe and made this this afternoon for a small gathering. It was delicious. I baked it for an extra 20 minutes which I now know I need to stick to the original 2 hours and 15 minutes from the recipe. Even with the slight over bake it was still very tasty. I plan to make another batch tomorrow. A new favorite of mine for sure.

    xxxxxyyyyy

  4. Jim Brady

    A true taste of home. I tried this recipe and immediately went back to the grocery store to stock up on the ingredients. I tried the baked bean recipe too and did the same thing! My brother demanded I overnight him a mason jar of both beans and brown bread! Now I can enjoy these New England treats all the time!

  5. K.K.

    Haven’t yet tried this recipe, so I can’t give a rating, but oh, the memories for this Rhode Island gal! My mom actually learned to make it from her Irish grandmother who made it to Hudson, MA via Nova Scotia. Definitely always was a sign we were having franks and beans for dinner, and mom served it warmed (not fried) with slightly sweetened cream cheese.

    I would steal slices the next day and slather with the left over cream cheese to nibble while I read.

    Man, now I’m hungry!!

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