Saturday, January 11, 2014

Boston Brown Bread(or New England Brown Bread)

The story and beginnings of this deliciously sweet brown bread is simple and confusing at the same time. Many historians will have you believe that it evolved from the basic "Thirdings"(see below) while others will tell you it all started with "Rye and Injun".

There is also speculation as to why Brown Bread, which started out, they say, as a bland and unsweetened bread ended up being flavored with molasses and/or maple syrup as time progressed.

There is also confusion as to why this bread was initially made with wheat and later substituted with rye. Just to clear the air(and I realize this is kind of boring to most of you but being somewhat of a 'square' according to my kids)I love this type of thing. Besides, I wouldn't be much of a New England Food Historian if I didn't have the answer now would I? Besides, I am going to give you the best Boston Brown Bread recipe you will ever taste, if you don't mind sitting through some of the red tape first.


                                                         Courtesy of
As everyone knows, steamed puddings and breads have been around many centuries before our forefathers landed on New England soil. Although many early Puritan fireplaces had some type of oven built into the back or side walls, baked goods were generally cooked in or around the fire, either the dough laying directly on the stone floor in front of the fire or on top of discarded leaves of cabbage or large tree leaves. It wasn't until a generation or two after the first immigrants arrived that separate ovens were built inside these huge fireplaces. These were simply a dome shaped "hole" that a separate fire was built. Once the 'oven' became hot enough, the ashes and embers were swept out with some turkey feathers and baked goods were placed inside to bake.

In the meantime, reflector ovens, spiders and Dutch ovens were the necessary vogue for preparing anything you didn't want stewed. As for steaming bread, well this wasn't common for quite some time after colonization. Brown bread was always baked during the early years. Rye and Injun being the precursor of our Boston Brown Bread. Containing wheat or rye flour, a pinch from the previous unbaked loaf of bread, "injun" or Indian meal(cornmeal) and some hot water, this bland bread was then cooked near the fire until done. As time eased on, a sweetener was added, most always molasses because of its' necessity in any Puritan and colonial kitchen, especially if your lived near Boston. Some households used just rye flour, others stuck with wheat while many families used a combination of both.

In the early cookbooks and references, this recipe was referred to as Thirdings" because it used a third amount of cornmeal, a third rye flour and a third wheat flour. White flour as we know today simply was not used during this period in New England. Many food historians will also tell you that because of the outbreak of stem(or wheat) rust during the last years of the 1660s, wheat was replaced by rye in Boston Brown Bread. While we did have an issue with this rust, it was contained for the most part along the coastal areas of Connecticut. While it is also true that many farmers gave up on growing wheat because of this rust, it was not wide spread enough to effect bread recipes in the rest of New England. While wheat was a significant harvest during the very early years o9f colonization, its use became more and more less demanding, rye becoming the staple.

Now back to our bread. John Winthrop, Jr., writing in 1662, just a few years before wheat's declination:

"There is...very good Bread made of [Indian corn], by mixing half, or a third parte, more or less of Ry, or Wheate-Meale, or Flower amongst it, and then they make it up into Loaves, adding Leaven or yeast to it to make it Rise."...

Over time, soured milk was added to the recipe, along with maple syrup or molasses, depending on your location. Boston, being the hub of international shipments, was the birthplace of adding molasses, reaching out to the hinterlands from there. As with baked beans, which is the classic accompaniment of brown bread, New Hampshire and Vermont chose to use maple syrup in both recipes more often than not.

The earliest recipe I find for Brown Bread is in Lydia Child's cookbook, American Frugal Housewife, 1830. I love it with butter slathered on both sides and grilled. Eat as is or as many historians will have you begging to do, enjoy it with homemade baked beans. And yes, I have a great recipe for authentic New England Baked Beans on my site,

Raisins were not added for many, many generations after and this author finds them to be the perfect addition, but not necessary for those of you who wish to exclude them. Boston, or as some refer New England, Brown Bread is great cold, slathered

FYI: My ancestor, Deacon James Bayley of Salem, Mass., tells of a drink that was widely popular during the late 17th and early 18th century in his hometown. It was called "Whistle Belly Vengeance". Made with soured beer that was boiling, he added molasses and a handful of brown bread crumbs. Served up nice and hot, it was(apparently) good for what ailed ya' in the cold, winter New England months.

There are several ways of easily steaming Boston Brown Bread. In the oven, stove top or using a crockpot. Although I enjoy the stovetop method, I don't use it often because of minor children running around the house during the cooking time, which is anywhere from one hour to two. I much prefer the oven method or even better, the crockpot. many recipe will have you using an empty coffee can as well. Although some coffee cans will not have that ridge on each end of the can, I find that many do, and it is expressly difficult to unmold your brown bread when that is present. I prefer a 26-30-ounce large soup can. Although they have ridges, they are much MUCH smaller and don't interfere in the least bit with unmolding. As long as the can holds about 3 cups, you are good to go. Always remember to remove any label first before cooking.

The Yankee Chef's Boston Brown Bread

There are variations to Brown Bread including using 1/2 cup molasses and 1/2 cup of maple syrup. Beware that the dough will not be as dark though. You can also use white flour in place of wheat if desired, but again, it won't be as dark. If you don't want to purchase more rye and wheat flour than you will use, simply buy what you need at a health food store.

1/2 cup raisins

1 cup boiling water or apple juice

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 cup rye flour

1 cup yellow cornmeal

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon allspice, optional

2 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 cup molasses, warmed

2 cups buttermilk or soured milk *

2(26-28-ounce) empty cans with top and bottom removed

Tin foil



In a small bowl, combine boiling water and raisins and let sit for at least a half hour while preparing recipe.

Preheat oven to 350-degrees F. Spray the inside of both cans with nonstick cooking spray liberally. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine flours, cornmeal, brown sugar, salt, allspice and baking soda. In another add the molasses and cover. Microwave on high for 10-15 seconds or until warmed through. Remove from microwave and add to a bowl containing buttermilk, stirring well. Drain raisins and stir into molasses mixture. Add molasses mixture into flour mixture and combine until well incorporated. This doesn't have to be smooth but it does need to be well mixed.

Cover one end of each coffee can with tin foil and tightly tie with string. Place each can(tin foil side down) into a large pot that is oven proof and sides that are at least as high as the cans. Equally divide brown bread batter into each can, no more than 2/3-full. Fill pot with boiling water, enough to come up at least one third of the way up.

Place in oven and steam in oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes to one hour and 30 minutes or until toothpick inserted in the middle comes out fairly clean. It won't come out perfectly clean because this is a steamed bread. Remove from oven carefully and remove from water bath. Cool at least 30 minutes before removing foil and pushing bread out from can to cool completely.

For the crockpot, make sure the water comes up the same amount and the lid fits snugly. On low, simmer the bread anywhere from 2-3 hours, testing as directed above.



* Stir in 2 teaspoons lemon juice or cider vinegar to 2 cups whole milk. Let stand for at least one hour in a warm kitchen or in oven that is not heated. Let milk curdle and sour before adding.


Anonymous said...

Fill can no more than 2/3 full

The Yankee Chef said...

TY my friend and I will amend that right now