This New England specialty isn’t like most breads you’re familiar with, as it’s not baked, but steamed. Bordering on a cake, Boston brown bread is moist and tender, a touch bitter, and mildly sweet with molasses. It might strike you as a savory English pudding, but it actually has Native American origins, from the special grain blend to the cooking method. The majority of effort in these Boston brown bread recipes comes from getting your supplies together. Once you’re good on those, the rest is as easy as Boston cream pie (which is actually a cake, and easier to make than pie, but that’s a story for another day).
Special equipment alert: cans
Most recipes call for steaming the bread in a coffee can, but who buys coffee in cans anymore? A sensible option in these modern times are standard 14-ounce cans, which are significantly smaller, so expect to need a few so you can make several miniature brown bread loaves instead of one big one. You’ll need to eat a lot of beans to prepare for this.
Special ingredient: brown bread flour
Traditional bread calls for a very particular flour blend you can find on the internet, or in New England. This is too much work since I need to save my energy to concentrate on eating beans, so I make my own: equal parts rye flour, yellow cornmeal, and either white or whole wheat flour.
Pick your pot
There’s no need for a special steaming insert of any of that jazz. All you want is a pot that’s large enough to fit all the cans with at least two inches of space between them, and is at least two inches taller than them. The pot does need to be covered while cooking, but in the event you can’t find a lid, you can also place a cookie sheet over the top to keep the steam in.
Mix the batter
This isn’t really hard to do, except for the fact that molasses (1/3 cup for every 1 ½ cup of flour) is pretty thick and may not be easy to incorporate. Mix it well with the buttermilk (1 cup for every 1 ½ cup of flour) before combining with the dry ingredients (½ a teaspoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of baking powder). If you feel like adding raisins, go right ahead.
Grease it up
You don’t want to go with a light coating of cooking spray here. This bread will make an attempt to stick to the can, so you want to lube it up nice and good with butter. To make sure you don’t miss a spot, melt the butter first, then swirl it around for a while to ensure full coverage.
You may also want to cut out little circles of parchment paper and stick them to the bottom of the can, which is a little bit of a pain in the butt, but will save you the grief of having to open up the other side of the can and pushing the bread out, rendering the cans useless for future bread baking endeavors. To get the circles in without getting your hand jammed in there, just press it down with a chopstick or the handle of a wooden spoon.
Put the kettle on. You need to pour already boiling water into the pot.
You don’t want any steam actually touching the bread, so cover the tops tightly with aluminum foil, securing it with rubber bands. Pour boiling water down the side of the pot until it comes halfway up the sides of the cans. Cover the pot, turn the heat up to high until the water is back at a boil, then drop it to a simmer. If at any point the water starts to run out, just top it off with a few cups.
Cook for as long as your recipe specifies. If you’ve had to split a coffee can recipe up, check your bread after 30 minutes. If it’s not set, check again 10 minutes later. When it’s ready it will look done on top, and a skewer inserted into the center will pull out clean.
Set the bread aside to cool for at least 10 minutes before turning it upside down and letting it slide right out. If it doesn’t slide, run a knife around the inside and give it a few taps. That’ll teach you for skipping the “grease it up” paragraph.