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Boston brown bread

Boston brown bread dates back to the early European settlers in the New England area. It’s a simple, hearty, dense, very rich and flavorful quick bread that was made with the ingredients most available at the time: cornmeal, rye flour, whole wheat flour, and molasses.

Traditionally, brown bread was cooked by steaming it in cans, instead of baking it in the oven, because in early settler days most people didn’t have ovens — but they could boil a pot of water over a fire. The recipe below calls for baking it, but at the end there are some instructions for steaming it if you feel like being a purist (and have a lot of extra time on your hands; honestly, it’s not worth it). In either case, this recipe is an outlier because it calls for relatively low heat: despite the name, we’re not trying to brown the outer crust; we’re just trying to cook it through.

You’ll note also that the recipe uses buttermilk, which is fairly acidic, and baking soda, instead of regular milk and baking powder.

As I mentioned above, this is a “quickbread” recipe: no yeast, no pre-rise, and it cooks up from a batter instead of a ball of dough.

Makes one loaf, about 10 slices. Preparation time: about 90 minutes.


  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup rye flour
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 1/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 3/4 cup unsulphured molasses (not blackstrap)
  • 2 cups buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Grease a 9×5 bread pan.

In a large bowl, mix together the whole wheat flour, rye flour, cornmeal, salt, and baking soda. In classic baking procedure, we’re combining all the dry ingredients, and all the wet ingredients, then mixing the dry and wet ingredients together.

In a small bowl, mix the molasses and buttermilk until well combined. Pour into the flour mixture and stir until it forms a batter. Make sure to stir well and scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl to find all the pockets of flour.

Pour the batter into the bread pan, and place in the oven. Bake at 300 degrees for 1 hour 20 minutes. Insert a toothpick into the center; if it comes out clean, then it’s done.

Remove from the oven, but leave the loaf in the pan for 10 minutes before trying to remove it. Cooling for ten minutes will help it to firm up and pull away from the sides of the pan a bit, and will make it easier to remove without it falling apart.

Serve warm or at room temperature. Preferably with butter and/or jam, and baked beans.

Tips and suggestions:

  • If you want to try the old-school approach of steaming the bread in a can: half-pound coffee cans or large baked-beans cans work well for this. You will also need a stockpot that is taller than the length of the cans you are using. Thoroughly clean the inside of the cans and then generously grease them with butter, margarine, or non-stick spray. Fill the cans 3/4 full with batter, cover the open end with aluminum foil and secure the foil in place with a rubber band. Stand the cans on their end (foil end up) in the stockpot, and fill the pot with boiling water until it comes halfway up the side of the cans. Cover the pot and place over high heat. Cook for three hours, checking the water level periodically and adding more to keep the water level halfway up the cans. After three hours, remove the cans from the pot and take off the foil. Allow to cool for 10 minutes, then run a knife along the inside of the can to ensure that the bread isn’t stuck. Turn the can upside down and shake a few times, and the bread should slide out. Serve warm.
  • Variation: add 1/2 cup of raisins to the batter.