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Steamed Brown Bread in a Can

Steamed Brown Bread in a Can
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New England may be small in size, but as we all know, it lacks for nothing in significance. I love that I am always learning something new about our six states — through the beauty of the landscape, lessons from the landmarks, and stories from the many people that have called it home. We certainly have a lot to celebrate.

One of the easiest ways to connect past with present is in the kitchen. New England lays claim to dozens of delicious dishes and ingredients with far-flung fame and recognition. Tackling a “classic” recipe is a wonderful and tasty way to enjoy a regional tradition.

I spent a recent Saturday afternoon determined to produce a loaf of Boston Brown Bread. Before I began, the only thing I knew for sure about the bread was that it was made in a metal coffee can, which is quickly becoming a piece of history itself. Even with the benefit of a modernized recipe, courtesy of Yankee‘s current Best New England Recipes, I found myself crossing my fingers more than once that I would end up with something edible. Fortunately, I find that to be part of the fun.

Boston Brown Bread is an old recipe. Early Puritan settlers missed the wheat they were accustomed to in England, but finding it in short supply, they made do with bread made from a mixture of wheat, rye, and cornmeal. Later, during the mid to late nineteenth century, brown bread came back into culinary fashion as sweet, steamed bread using the same flour trio but adding in buttermilk, molasses and raisins.

Brown Bread Ingredients
Brown bread ingredients.

The recipe has evolved over the decades to accommodate modern ingredients and kitchen tools. Some recipes still call for buttermilk while others (like Yankee‘s) call for sour cream. Some call for smaller individual molds, and others allow for the loaf to be baked instead of steamed.

I will admit I was a bit apprehensive as I surveyed my assembled ingredients, stockpot, and collection of tin cans on baking day, but I put my trust in tradition. Once the batter was ready, I poured it into a greased coffee can, covered the opening with aluminum foil, and secured it with a string. Meanwhile, I filled a large stockpot with two inches of boiling water. When the batter-filled coffee can was ready, I took the two smaller cans and placed them into the pot. The coffee can was then balanced on top of the smaller cans, which served to keep the larger can above the water level.

Wrapped Brown Bread Wrapped brown bread.
Brown Bread Steaming Brown Bread Steaming

The stockpot lid was put in place, and then the steam from the water went to work on cooking the bread. I won’t lie. . .it was a little strange to glance over at a stockpot on my stove and think, “I am making bread in there,” but it was also exciting to think that I was making something my grandmother made, and most likely her mother before her.

I checked the water periodically, adding a bit more when necessary to keep it at two inches. Two and a half hours after it began steaming, I held my breath and lifted the aluminum foil, skewer poised to test for doneness, and saw that I did indeed have a very edible-looking loaf of brown bread.

Once it was unmolded from the can in one piece (phew!), and the sweet aroma of molasses and cornmeal filled my kitchen, I knew I had a success. After a generous slathering of butter, I also had the perfect afternoon snack.

brown bread Brown bread.

The texture and flavor of the bread is similar to a lightly sweetened wholegrain muffin, and would also taste wonderful topped with cream cheese. Tradition dictates that Boston Brown Bread is expertly accompanied by a helping of Boston Baked Beans, another regional classic for another day.

Sliced Brown Bread Sliced brown bread.

Click to view and print the recipe for Granny’s Steamed Brown Bread Recipe

Aimee Seavey


Aimee Seavey


As Yankee's Digital Editor, Aimee manages, produces, and promotes content for Yankee's digital and social media initiatives. A lifelong New Englander, she loves history and a good Massachusetts South Shore bar pizza.
Updated Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

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9 Responses to Steamed Brown Bread in a Can

  1. Betty Cordoza September 29, 2011 at 9:58 pm #

    Sounds like it might be fun to do on one of those rainy or snowy winter days. However, for speed, you can’t beat good ol’ B&M Brown Bread in a can! Wrap it in foil when it’s out of the can, throw it in the oven on low for a few minutes, and voila!

  2. L Charles January 5, 2012 at 11:14 am #

    This is a traditional method for steaming “puddings”. Since I moved from Boston to London UK, I am now familiar with the British steamed pudding, and it is always placed in a suitable container which is usually covered in baking parchment, tied with string cross wise over the top, and lowered into hot water, where it luxuriates until done.

    There are savory and sweet steamed puddings over here, and you can find many references to them in 18th and 19th century novels! Traditional English Christmas Pudding is a steamed pudding. So, Boston Brown Bread is in this tradition – I wonder who thought of putting it into a coffee can? Clever, though – necessity is the mother of invention. Would the brown bread be less tasty if it were steamed in something else? They don’t sell coffee in cans over here…

    • Aimee Seavey January 10, 2012 at 3:35 pm #

      Trying a classic steamed British Christmas Pudding is on my Food Wish List! I had sticky toffee pudding for the first time this year and loved it. Thanks for commenting!

      • L Charles January 12, 2012 at 3:23 pm #

        Hi Aimee,
        Sticky Toffee Puddings are very nice indeed! Thank you for offering the small can idea for the brown bread. I can at least get hold of something petite – it will be like “Boston Brown Bread Muffins”!
        Thank you,

  3. Jim Petersen January 9, 2012 at 10:35 am #

    I am having difficulty in finding rye flour can I replace the quantity with regular flour?

    • Aimee Seavey January 10, 2012 at 3:33 pm #

      Hi Jim!

      In case it helps, I only ever seem to find rye flour made by Hodgson Mill, in the brown and white paper bag. It is usually near the all-purpose flour in the grocery store – a little off to the side. If you can’t find it, you could swap it for all-purpose, but make sure you use the cornmeal and whole-wheat flours!

      Good Luck!

  4. Fae B September 23, 2014 at 11:16 am #

    I remember this from my childhood in Northern Maine. In Patten there was a man who used to sell brown bread and baked beans from a school bus. I am sorry that I cant remember his name. This was in the late 50’s and early 60’s. I really didn’t like baked beans then, but I would eat them with brown bread. I would also eat them if my father would mash them and put them on bread with mayonnaise (a bean sandwich). When I moved away from Maine I started making brown bread and liking baked beans as a taste of home. Oh and I steamed them in coffee cans like my grandmother did. Love these recipes.


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