My Goals

  • Balanced whole-grain flavor

  • Not-too-dense texture

  • Easy-to-find cooking vessel

As a native New Englander, I’ve always had a thing for Boston brown bread. It’s deeply, darkly delicious—sort of a cross between a cake and a quick bread in texture and rich with molasses, raisins, and the complex flavors (and nutrition) of whole grains. When colonists started making this unyeasted, one-bowl bread in the 18th century, most cooking was done over an open hearth—a tricky environment for bread baking. To get around this, brown bread was steamed in lidded tin pudding molds in a kettle of simmering water over an open fire, giving the loaves a distinctive shape and a smooth, crustless exterior—and keeping the whole-grain crumb remarkably moist. Yankees have always paired brown bread with baked beans for supper, but it is equally delicious toasted, with a schmear of cream cheese or butter, for breakfast or as a snack.

To create a brown bread recipe of my own, I turned to one of the best-known recipes for inspiration. It comes from Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1898) and calls for grains that were plentiful and cheap at the time: rye meal, granulated (coarse) cornmeal, and graham flour. The grains are mixed with salt and baking soda, and then molasses and buttermilk are poured in to create a thick, bubbly batter (the baking soda reacts with both the buttermilk and the molasses to help lighten the loaf). The batter is then scooped into a buttered mold, leaving ample space for the bread to expand during cooking. Next, the mold is covered and set in a boiling-water bath until the bread is fully cooked, which takes about 4 hours since the grains require time to tenderize. Finally, the bread is slid out of the mold and allowed to cool before being sliced and served. I followed the recipe as written, except for employing the modern approach of using a coffee can in place of the pudding mold.

A Newer Approach to Steaming Bread

The colonists steamed their brown bread in tin pudding molds; modern cooks took to using empty coffee cans. But these days, few cooks buy their coffee in cans, so we turned to empty 28-ounce tomato cans, which we wrapped in foil and steamed in a covered stockpot for 2 hours. We made sure to select cans labeled “BPA-free.” BPA is a controversial chemical used in the linings of some cans that could leach into the bread when exposed to prolonged heat. Today, many companies use BPA-free cans.

Batter Up(date)

Farmer’s recipe has stood the test of time—it was quite good—so I decided to use it as a starting point for my own recipe. I evaluated the ingredients one by one. “Rye meal” simply refers to coarsely ground rye; it has a sandy texture similar to that of grits. Most modern recipes opt for more readily available rye flour, so I followed suit. Using more finely ground, quicker-cooking rye flour helped cut down the long steaming time. For the same reason, I found it best to use finely ground cornmeal rather than coarse. Finally, the graham flour. This is just coarsely ground whole-wheat flour, so I swapped in much more readily available regular whole-wheat flour. I used equal amounts of these three components so that their flavors would get equal billing.

Members of the Cook’s Illustrated team line up to taste some existing brown bread recipes, the most popular of which dates back to 1898.

Farmer called for molasses as the sole sweetener in the bread, but many contemporary recipes also include milder sugars such as brown or white. However, I found that these made the bread sweeter than it really should be and masked the pleasing trace of bitterness that is essential to brown bread. Molasses alone was the way to go, and any type—except for blackstrap, which is far too intensely flavored—worked just fine.

Molasses Morass, Unraveled

Buying molasses can be a confusing experience since bottles may be variously labeled mild, dark, robust, full, or blackstrap. Fortunately, we’ve found that with the exception of blackstrap, these other products all taste similar, and they all work fine in our recipes. As for blackstrap, this designation indicates that the mixture of sugarcane and sugar beet juice used to make the syrup has been boiled three times, rendering the molasses darker and thicker. In taste tests, this type stood out as strongly bitter, smoky, and much less sweet than other types.

When we substituted blackstrap in recipes calling for regular molasses (brown bread, baked beans, and chewy molasses cookies), tasters found the results too intense. Another reason to avoid blackstrap in recipes that don’t specifically call for it: a lower sugar and higher calcium content. Cookies made with blackstrap didn’t spread appropriately, and bean skins refused to soften completely.

That said, I did come across a few modern refinements that were worth implementing. Adding a second leavener (baking powder) helped give the bread a lighter texture. And mixing in fat—in the form of a few tablespoons of melted butter—gave the bread a welcome richness and softened its coarse texture.

Full Steam Ahead

Finally, there was the question of cooking the bread in a 1-pound coffee can. Since nowadays few people buy coffee in metal cans and even fewer own pudding molds, it seemed like a good idea to scale the recipe to fit into two 28-ounce tomato cans. BPA-free cans are now available, which alleviates any safety concerns. To prevent sticking, I greased the interiors; once the cans were loaded with batter, I wrapped their tops with greased aluminum foil.

Many recipes call for using a coffee can or a lidded pudding mold typical of colonial times, but since both of these vessels are rare today, we turned to a commonly available alternative: 28-ounce tomato cans.

I came across a few recipes that suggested baking the bread in a gentle oven instead of steaming it, but to prevent the tops of the loaves from getting overly dark and leathery, I had to set the oven so low that they took a very long time to cook through. Steaming on the stovetop by setting the cans in a stockpot of simmering water was faster and ensured that the loaves stayed moist inside and out. (Even though the cans are wrapped tightly and the steam never makes contact with the bread, it prevents the loaves from exceeding 212 degrees.) After 2 hours, I pulled two steamy cylinders of utterly delicious whole-grain bread from the pot, happy to carry on the tradition.

An Easy Out

To ensure that the bread releases easily from the cans, we spray the insides with vegetable oil spray. The bread shrinks slightly as it cools, so make sure to let it cool for the full 20 minutes. Giving the can a gentle shake before sliding the loaf onto the rack will also facilitate an easy release.

Keys to Success

  • Balanced whole-grain flavor

    Use equal parts white cornmeal, whole-wheat flour, and rye flour for complex flavor.
  • Not-too-dense texture

    Baking soda and baking powder team up to lighten the dense loaf by reacting with the acidic molasses and buttermilk in the batter.
  • Easy-to-find cooking vessel

    The colonists steamed their breads in pudding molds; later cooks used 1-pound coffee cans. Since many cooks no longer have coffee cans on hand, we scaled the recipe to fit into two 28-ounce tomato cans.