Boston brown bread is a dense, sweet, savory bread that contains wheat, corn, and rye flour, sweetened with mollases, and often with raisins or other dried fruits. It is traditionally cooked in a coffee can, or in earlier versions, in a ceramic bowl or crock, and was steamed, not baked.
It is an example of perhaps one of the oldest types of bread cooked in colonial New England. These went by many names, but the most common names were "thirded bread" (because it used equal amounts of three types of flour), and "Rye and Indian" (corn flour was called "indian flour" by the colonists). It is probably similar to recipes cooked by the native americans, which often used corn batter sweetened with squash or maple, and were probably cooked on heated stones like pancakes, or steamed in clay pots.
These types of breads reflected the lifestyle of the colonists.
- Few colonists had ovens of their own, so steaming in a large kettle over a fire was a much more convenient method of cooking.
- Wheat was scarce, due to the harsh New England climate, so the colonists mixed in whatever other flour they had, including rye, corn, buckwheat, and oat flours, to stretch their wheat further.
- Because of the use of whole wheat and rye, sweetening was usually helpful to complement the intense and somewhat bitter flavors, and make the bread more palatable. Sugar was scarce, so alternative sweeteners like honey, sorghum syrup, squash, or maple were common. This recipe uses molasses, but early versions of this recipe would have used whatever was available.
Step 1: Things I've Changed
I decided the recipe needed a few changes.
- No Coffee Can! Cooking in cans is traditional, but many modern cans have a plastic coating inside. it's so thin that it's almost impossible to tell if a can has a plastic lining or not. Some cans say "BPA-free", but that doesn't mean they don't use some other kind of plastic. Some alternatives are:
- Use a glass beaker from a french press coffee maker. this gives the traditional can shape, but it can be tricky to remove the loaf.
- Make mini loaves in coffee mugs. You can even cook these in the microwave.
- Any kind of glass, metal, or ceramic bowl or bundt cake mold could also be used, if the traditional cylinder shape isn't important to you. Souffle crocks work well too.
- Buttermilk optional: Many traditional recipes use buttermilk, but you can use regular milk, with some sour cream or unsweetened yogurt added to provide the acidity. either way will taste fine. the added advantage of using sour cream is that it adds a bit of fat to the batter, improving the taste and texture.
- Raisins optional: Raisins, made from grapes, would not have been widely available. So you can skip the raisins if you don't like them. The colonists would have used whatever dried fruits they could find, which would have been cranberries, blueberries, dried apple pieces etc... I used a combination of raisins, dried cranberries, and dried blueberries.
Step 2: Ingredients
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 1 cup corn flour
- 1 cup rye flour (or buckwheat flour)
- 1 egg
- 2 cups buttermilk** (or 1 1/2 cups milk and 1/2 cup sour cream)
- 1/2 cup molasses (or up to 3/4 cup for a more
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 tsp baking soda.
- 1/2 cup raisins or other dried berries.
- butter, to grease mold.
- *(Optional) If you used buttermilk instead of sour cream, add a teaspoon of melted butter.
- (optional) 1/8 tsp of cloves or allspice.
Only rich people could afford cloves or allspice back in colonial times. That would be saved for special occasions.
Step 3: Mix the Batter
Before you mix the ingredients, heat a few inches of water to boiling in a large stock pot.
Mix ye Dry ingredients:
- Stir together the three types of flour, the salt, and the baking soda.
- Warm the buttermilk or milk in the microwave for about a minute. it may curdle a little. that's not a problem.
- If using milk/sourcream, stir in the sourcream. If using sourcream, stir in the teaspoon of butter until it melts.
- Add in the molasses and the beaten egg to the warm milk mixture. if using sour cream, add that too, and stir.
Mix together ye wet and dry ingredients:
- Ye colonists would have used a stick to stir. (Nay, I jest, they had spoons)
Step 4: Steam It:
- Grease your mold (beaker, bowl, pan) with butter, and lightly dust the buttered inner surface with flour.
- Pour the batter into the mold. Only fill it about 3/5 of the way up. It will rise. If you fill it more than 3/4 of the way, it will overflow, or bump into the pot lid.
- Turn the stove burner off until the water stops boiing. Place the mold carefully into the stockpot. The water of the stock pot should only be a few inches deep.
- Turn the heat up to medium until it sounds like it's about to boil, then turn back to low. Simmer on the lowest setting for 2 hours. If it boils, turn it down until it just stops boiling. It should make that roaring or bubbling sound like it's about to boil.
- As it cooks, it will rise slightly, 30-40 % or so. You will notice that the bread above the water line will have a more open, spongey texture. The bread below the waterline will be more dense and "muffin" like. They both taste great. If you prefer one texture more than the other, then you can adjust the water level accordingly.
Check with a meat thermometer. The middle should be at least 180 degrees. Larger thicker shaped loaves take longer to cook. Flat/shallow or tall/narrow loaves cook faster.
Step 5: Remove It From the Mold
Carefully take the mold out of the water and let it cool for a few minutes. Use oven mitts or a canning jar lifter.
Turn the mold upside down and let the loaf slide out. A bowl or bundt pan should easily release the loaf. A french press beaker or mug may take some gentle shaking, and may slide out very, very slowly. mine usually take about 2 minutes to slooooooowly slide out.
Sometimes the best solution is to slide a long thin knife down to the bottom of the mold so air can get in. another solution is to put the beaker into the microwave for a minute. Don't walk away! watch it very carefully. The steam pressure will push the loaf out like a piston. Turn the microwave off as soon as it starts to lift, and quickly grab the beaker and turn it upside down.
Step 6: Uses Batter, and Bread
If you have leftover batter that won't fit into your mold, you can do several things
- Cook it like a pan cake.
- Pour it in a greased mug and microwave it at 50% power for about 5-7 minutes. It will rise to about double it's original volume.
The bread freezes very well. Wrap it in aluminum foil and place that in a plastic zipper bag before freezing.
Slice into circular slices. This bread is best served warm. Microwave slices for just a few seconds wrapped in a paper towel. It's great with baked beans, chili, or stew. It's also great toasted with butter, cream-cheese, jam, or honey.