I got the idea for making Boston brown bread when I saw several big cans of B&M Brown Bread in my mother’s kitchen cupboard the other day. Bread in a can — how weird is that? It’s surprisingly edible, and might be just the thing to stock for the next hurricane. But if you live outside of New England, good luck finding it. “I know what you’re talking about, we don’t have it, and you’re the first person who’s ever asked for it!” said my local grocer.
I wanted to make this bread from scratch anyway, since it dates back to colonial times, or nearly so. Wheat flour was scarce in the American colonies, so “make-do” breads were made from other flours, or a combination of wheat and other flours. Boston brown bread — called just brown bread in New England — contained rye flour, wheat flour, and cornmeal. These were mixed with molasses and buttermilk, and the bread was steamed in a kettle over a fire.
According to John Mariani’s Dictionary of American Food and Drink, this bread dates back to the time of the Puritans. One theory is that 17th-century settlers steamed bread because few of them had ovens, and it was an easy way to make bread over an open fire. But other food historians claim that this bread didn’t exist until well into the 19th century, and that it was predated by baked yeast breads like Rye and Indian, made from rye flour and cornmeal.
So I’m not sure this is truly colonial bread. (On days like this, I feel like calling my blog Possibly Revolutionary Pie.) At any rate, it’s very old. It was usually steamed in cylindrical or melon-shaped metal molds, and eventually the resourceful New Englanders started using coffee cans, a tradition that continues today. I used a one-quart metal pudding mold, which would have been typical in the 18th or 19th century. I followed a recipe by Evan Jones from American Food, with some help from Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking, one of my favorite cookbooks of all time. This bread takes a while but is very easy and worth the time. It has the consistency of a moist muffin, with a rich molasses flavor that improves over a day or two.
There are two steaming methods for brown bread, and I tried both. You can let the pot simmer on the stovetop or in the oven. Either way takes three hours, and the results are pretty similar. The oven method is a little simpler because you don’t need to adjust the heat. I think the oven-steamed bread was slightly drier, but not too much so. I liked them both!
Boston Brown Bread
Adapted from Evan Jones’s American Food
1/2 cup rye flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup raisins or currants
1. Sift the rye and whole wheat flours with the baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. Add the cornmeal and mix well. Stir the buttermilk and molasses together, and add to the flour mixture. Blend well, then fold in the raisins.
2. Butter a 1-quart pudding mold generously, including the inside of the lid. Pour in the batter.
Put the lid on the mold and set it on a metal trivet or rack inside a very large pot. Pour boiling water into the pot to reach about halfway up the sides of the mold. Cover pot and steam the bread, simmering on stove over medium-low heat, for 3 hours. Check occasionally to make sure that the water level doesn’t get too low. (Alternatively, place the pot in a 300°F oven for three hours.)
3. Carefully remove the mold from the pot. Take off the lid and place mold in a 300°F oven for 10 minutes to dry the bread a little. Remove from oven, let sit for a few minutes, then invert the mold to release the bread. Serve warm. Bostonians traditionally eat this bread with baked beans for Sunday supper. We’re not fans of baked beans, so we just slathered on butter and jam.
Note: If you’re interested in making this bread using coffee cans, see Aimee Seavey’s “Brown Bread in a Can” on YankeeMagazine.com. Or if you’re feeling very lazy, you can buy the above-mentioned B&M Brown Bread on Amazon or at vermontcountrystore.com.