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Classic steamed brown bread is a sweet treat

Pumpkin Boston brown bread.
Pumpkin Boston brown bread.Karoline Boehm Goodnick for the boston globe/Karoline Boehm Goodnick

Sweet disks of dense brown bread are a Boston tradition, dating to the Colonists, for whom wheat flour was a luxury, so cornmeal and rye flour were added to create “thirded” bread. Baking bread on an open hearth was difficult, so women often used the steam from other things simmering on the fire to cook pans of bread, adding molasses or syrup to the dough to sweeten it and keep it moist for several days. Native Americans were steaming their own versions of corn breads long before the settlers arrived, but the newcomers were already familiar with English steamed puddings.

In the 19th century, a wave of culinary nostalgia brought brown bread back to New England tables, with raisins and other dried fruits. By the mid-20th century, brown bread was generally steamed in old coffee cans or baking soda tins. Today, metal coffee cans are harder to come by and made in a way that the bread is difficult to slip out. A 28-ounce can (think whole peeled tomatoes) is a handier substitution.


Brown bread is wetter than ordinary bread and mildly sweet. The classic recipe is made with whole-wheat flour, rye flour, yellow cornmeal, buttermilk, molasses, and raisins. Another version uses the trio of grains with pureed pumpkin, brown sugar, cinnamon, and ground ginger. Both are a fine pairing for stews or their old and familiar companion, baked beans.

Related recipes:

- Recipe for pumpkin Boston brown bread

- Recipe for classic Boston brown bread

Jessie Hazard can be reached at jfhazard8@gmail.com.