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What is Boston Brown Bread?

By Bronwyn Harris
Updated May 16, 2024
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Boston brown bread is an unusual bread which gets some of its flavor from molasses, and which has an interesting history that stems directly from the resources available in Colonial New England. Early New Englanders needed a bread with what limited resources they had. Since they had more cornmeal and rye flour than wheat flour, the three were combined, helping them to conserve their precious stores of wheat. In addition, as ovens were not available to all colonists, the bread was cooked by steaming, instead of baking it.

Many settlers in New England cooked their meals in fireplaces, instead of ovens, so they came up with a way to cook bread in the fireplace. The bread was steamed, usually in a container that is cylindrical. Metal or glass molds may have been used, while today Boston brown bread is usually steamed in a coffee can. With ovens and stoves being ubiquitous in modern society, the can or other heatproof container containing the bread dough is usually steamed by being placed in a covered pot which contains boiling water.

After Boston brown bread is steamed, it is generally slid out of the can or mold, retaining the shape of the container, and served while it is still warm. Boston brown bread is now offered pre-made in a can, or occasionally in bakeries. The bread is often served with Boston baked beans, just as it was in the days of the Puritans.

To make Boston brown bread, start by greasing two one-pound (454 g) coffee cans, or molds or cans of a similar size and shape. Combine in a large bowl one cup (237 ml) of whole wheat flour, one cup (237 ml) of rye flour, one cup (237 ml)of cornmeal — usually yellow — 1 1/2 teaspoon (7.4 ml) baking soda, and one teaspoon (4.9 ml) salt. If desired, one cup (237 ml) of raisins can be added at this stage, taking care to separate any raisins that are stuck together.

Next, in a smaller bowl, combine two cups (473 ml) of buttermilk and 3/4 cup (177 ml) molasses. Stir this mixture into the dry ingredients, stopping as soon as all ingredients are moist. Fill the greased cans with the dough, and cover them with aluminum foil. To seal the cans, two layers of aluminum foil can be used, which can then be fastened around the can with string or rubber bands.

Fill a pot with water, and put some type of rack in the pans, for the cans to rest on. Put the pot, with the rack and cans in it, over a burner on low, and add boiling water until the water level reaches halfway to the top of the cans. Cover the pot, bringing the water to a gentle boil. Steam the bread this way — adding more boiling water if necessary — for two and a half to three hours, stopping when an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Carefully slide the Boston brown bread out of the can. This will be much easier if the cans were well greased before adding the dough!

There are many variations on the basic Boston brown bread recipe. Some recipes replace the rye flour with wheat or white flour. Other dried fruit can be added in place of or in addition to raisins. Boston brown bread can even be baked nowadays, using a loaf pan and baking at 325° F (163° C) for approximately one hour. However, as the steaming is part of the history of Boston brown bread and what makes it unique, most cooks will choose to make the bread by steaming instead of baking.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon223077 — On Oct 17, 2011

@Gryphonisle: I just finished steaming two loaves of brown bread in coffee cans. My bread turned out great and no melted plastic, because I used metal cans.

Although the cheap, grocery store brands of coffee may come in plastic, it's still easy to find metal coffee cans if you spend a couple extra dollars.

By anon156782 — On Feb 28, 2011

I believe you are supposed to use a metal can, to the poster who commented about the melted plastic!

I live in Georgia and we have B & M Brown Bread here in our grocery stores so it is nice to see it isn't just in New England anymore.

By anon132124 — On Dec 05, 2010

I use wide mouth pint size canning jars. Fill half full, no steaming, just bake. Grease and flour jars. Comes out yummy and freezes great.

By anon129845 — On Nov 25, 2010

Use pepperidge farms pirouette cans instead of coffee cans, plus they have no inner lip.

By anon66427 — On Feb 19, 2010

I am craving boston brown bread with cream cheese, yum. It is impossible to find B&M brown bread in a can so I guess I will just have to make it.

By anon63864 — On Feb 03, 2010

I have been making this for years and use soup cans or veggie cans. my southern neighbors save me their cans and in return I make some bread. I can buy B M beans at the commissary here and this a wonderful winter meal.

By anon58384 — On Jan 01, 2010

There is a company in Portland, Maine, The Burnham & Morrill (sp) Co.

They can beans as well as "Boston Brown Bread," that is delicious. It is rare that you find B&M products anywhere but New England. I have my mom send me a few things I cannot locate.

The Boston Brown Bread and barley are a few.

Glenn (in San Antonio)

By anon50789 — On Nov 01, 2009

When I was a young kid, late at night my parents used to partake of Boston Brown Bread with cream cheese on it. I could never figure out how they could put it in their mouths. It tasted horrible, but then, I don't care for molasses.

By gryphonisle — On Oct 22, 2008

Steaming brown bread in a coffee "can" today would be a grand mess... melted plastic on the oven floor and all that...

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