Why This Recipe Works
- Steaming batter in a can results in a very tender and moist bread that holds its shape without the help of eggs or white flour.
- Steaming the brown bread in relatively small 14-ounce cans shortens their cooking time to 35 minutes.
I have many fond memories of "bread in a can." Yes, a can. It's called Boston brown bread, and it's a colonial New England classic made with cornmeal, rye or whole wheat flour, and enriched with molasses. As a kid, it was a treat to pluck a can of this dark, moist, mysterious bread from the grocery store shelf, slide it out, and slice it up. It's especially good when spread with cream cheese and served alongside a big ole pot of baked beans.
This bread is still sold in a can and the reason is simple. Boston brown bread, essentially a baking soda-leavened "quick bread," has an unusual cooking method: It's steamed. To cook, the batter is poured into greased cans (often a coffee can), covered with parchment or foil and secured with string, and then set in a pot with a few inches of water. The steamy heat gently cooks the batter into a cylindrical loaf with a wonderful texture that is sliceable but unbelievably moist. Because the batter lacks any real structure (no eggs, no gluten-producing flour), the can is there to hold it all together until the starches gelatinize and set.
If only my family knew then what I know now: This bread is incredibly easy to make. There is no reason to ever, ever pop it out of a supermarket can. Whisk up all of the ingredients and you're done. It's that simple. And by choosing smaller cans to bake the batter in, the bread (I got 3 small loaves) takes about 30 minutes to cook on the stovetop.
If you can, try to resist the urge to eat them right away. This bread is even better toasted up the next day.
This recipe was cross-tested in 2023 and updated with more accurate measurements to guarantee best results.
Easy Boston Brown Bread Recipe
Moist and sweet with molasses, this steamed quick bread is easier than you think.
1 cup rye flour (4.25 ounces; 120g)
1/2 cup raisins (2.75 ounces; 75g)
1/3 cup fine cornmeal (2.75 ounces; 75g)
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume
1 cup (240ml) buttermilk
1/3 cup blackstrap molasses (2.75 ounces; 80g)
Cream cheese to serve on the side
Coat three 14.5- to 15-ounce cans (about 4 inches tall and 2 3/4 inches wide) with cooking spray and place a round piece of parchment paper in the bottom of each can. Place a trivet or steamer insert into the bottom of a tall stockpot, fill with water to reach 1 1/2 inches above the trivet. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and bring to a simmer over medium-high.
In a medium bowl, whisk together rye flour, raisins, cornmeal, baking soda, and salt until evenly combined. Whisk in buttermilk and molasses until just combined. Divide batter evenly between prepared cans (about 1 cup/200g batter per can; the batter should fill the cans no more than 2/3 of the way full). Place a small square of foil over the top of each can to serve as a lid and secure with a heavy-duty rubber band or string.
Set cans on trivet in the pot of boiling water. The water should reach about halfway up the sides of the cans (if not, add additional hot water). Cover and return to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and gently simmer until bread is set and gently pulling away from sides of cans, 35 to 40 minutes. A skewer inserted into the center should come out with moist crumbs and a thermometer inserted into the center should register between 200°F and 205°F.
Remove cans from pot using tongs, set on a cooling rack, and remove foil lids. Let bread cool in cans slightly, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove bread from cans by turning each can upside down and tapping the bottom of the can with the heel of your palm. Let loaves cool completely on wire rack, about 1 hour. Serve plain or toasted with cream cheese, preferably the next day (the flavors meld and improve with this resting time).
Three 14.5 to 15-ounce cans, tall stockpot, trivet or steamer insert, whisk, foil, string or rubber bands, digital thermometer, cooling rack
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 12 to 14|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 1g||1%|
|Saturated Fat 1g||3%|
|Total Carbohydrate 19g||7%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||5%|
|Total Sugars 10g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||2%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|