Boston Brown Bread

If you have never heard of the New England tradition of Boston Brown Bread, you are in for a treat!

When I was growing up, when we had a supper of beans, they were often served with Boston Brown Bread. This was the comfort meal, a bowl of beans and a biscuit or brown bread. This oddity delighted us as children because the breads were baked in round coffee or prepared bean cans, so their shape was unique. My mother always put raisins in hers, but other cooks left it plain.

Boston Brown Bread (or Yankee Brown Bread, New England Brown Bread) adapts to different additions; I love it with a bit of chopped up crystalized ginger, and also chopped nuts, neither of which appeared in my childhood breads. You can also add other spices in moderation.

Brown bread
A little different, Boston Brown Bread has a unique flavor and texture, moist, slightly sweet, but definitely savory!

The bread tastes like nothing else. While there are sweet ingredients, it is most definitely not a sweet bread, its flavor reads as a savory when served with butter and a bowl of beans, the raisins are a little surprise now and then. The molasses lends a slightly bitter note. Yet, you can add some cream cheese, a bit of jam, and it is transformed into a sweet and tangy tea bread! I’ve served this to inn guests who have not tried brown bread, and they sometimes have to take a second, third, or fourth bite before they decide if they like it! They usually do.

“Thirded Bread”

The bread is made with a blend of grains that compose the early New England flour mix of graham, rye, and cornmeal. Wheat was difficult to grow in the northeast, but rye and corn were steady crops, so this blend of flours worked well for early New Englanders. Brown bread was referred to as “thirded bread” because of the ratio of the three grains, and molasses was the sweetener of choice, one that lends a moisture to the bread.

A category all its own, packed with nutrition

Whether you think of this as a quick bread or a steamed pudding, it is in a category of its own, and it is fun to make. This will serve as a happy sidekick to whatever main course dish you make, or whatever fancy tea service you are serving to guests. It can be dressed up beautifully for a party with the addition of smoked salmon, or crispy cucumbers.

This bread is completely whole grain, so it packs a lot of nutrition. The molasses also lends important vitamins and minerals, just one tablespoon provides only 48 calories but over 500 mg. of potassium and 20% of your daily requirements for iron and calcium.

If you cannot find graham flour, use whole wheat. Most health food stores carry the rye flour, and it can be found online as well.

A vegan can easily make this by souring a non-dairy milk alternative.

Boston Brown Bread

1 cup graham or whole-wheat flour

1 cup rye flour

Scant 1 cup cornmeal

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. allspice

1 ½ cups buttermilk

1 cup blackstrap molasses

¼ cup brown sugar

2 tbsp. melted butter

1 cup raisins

2 tbsp. candied ginger, optional

2 tbsp. chopped walnuts, optional

The prep:

First, prepare your “pans.” Grease three 25-ounce cans (I use the large black bean or chickpea cans) and then sprinkle well with cornmeal. Set up your stockpot with a rack in the bottom, canning jar rings, or even crumpled up aluminum foil. You will not want the cans to be directly sitting on the bottom of the pot or the bread will overtake on the bottom before the top is set.

Put the water kettle on to heat, and find your stockpot and cover.

The process:

Mix together flours and cornmeal, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and allspice. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat together molasses, sugar, and melted butter. Add the dry ingredients and mix just until blended. Add the raisins, and ginger and walnuts if using.

brown bread ready to bake
Cover your cans with a buttered piece of parchment or waxed paper and secure with a little cotton twine. Leave some headroom for expansion. Now they are ready for their steam bath.

Divide the batter between the three cans, then place a square of buttered parchment or waxed paper over the top, leaving room for expansion, and secure with string. Place the cans in the stockpot, and fill with hot water halfway up the cans. Turn on the heat to high, bring the water back to a simmer, then cover the pot, and reduce the heat to the lowest setting that will keep the water at a simmer.

Steam the breads for 2 to 2 ½ hours, or until firm on the top when touched. Remove from the water and set on a rack to cool for about 20 minutes, removing the paper hat.

brown bread cropped
Let the breads cool for a bit before you remove them from the pans.

Shake out of the can, or, if it is sticking at all, cut off the bottom of the can and push the bread through.

Serve warm or cold. Delicious with orange marmalade, or cream cheese, or both!

Here’s a funny little poem from the Berkshire County Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachustetts) Oct 22, 1858:


I’m a Yankee, born ‘mong the rye and corn
Of the Eastern States, ’tis said;
And a tribute I’ll pay, in a rhyming way,
To their loaves of good brown bread.

I’ve lived at best, six years in the West,
Where wheat is used instead,
But in all my round I’ve seldom found
A loaf of good brown bread.

Since I have roamed to my boyhood’s home,
The rocks and hills I dread;
Yet in spite of that I’m growing fat,
Every day, on good brown bread.

You still may make white bread and cake,
By style and fancy led,
But I tell you, sir, that I prefer
A loaf of good brown bread.

~ unknown New England Farmer.

© Copyright 2019 – or current year, Dorothy Grover-Read, The New Vintage Kitchen

9 Comments Add yours

  1. I love the idea of this bread….I can just imagine it teamed with a hearty bowl of homemade beans …yum☺️

    1. It is pretty yummy, and good for you too!

  2. Victoria says:

    Looks so delicious! Many years ago I baked bread nearly every day, in a wood stove oven, baked in cans, no steam. This looks like a ‘must try’. Looks delicious!

    1. Thank you Victoria! I have also cooked these in a water bath in the oven, especially in the winter. I used to have a wood stove as well, but no more. I really miss it!

      1. Victoria says:

        I miss my wood stove also! So rustic , very reliable and such great baked goods from that oven! I hope the family that I left in with in Montana still has it! But utilizing cans and other cooking/baking methods is pretty cool! Great job!

      2. Yes, those cast-iron ovens used radiant heat to bake, the absolute best! Here’s hoping your stove has become an old friend to new people!

  3. What an interesting way to make bread. I like the addition of cornmeal. Looks like a lot of fun! 💖

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