Boston brown bread is one of those funky things that only makes sense below the surface. It comes in a can, for cryin’ out loud. Who buys bread in a can? (The hubs, that’s who.) It’s steamed, not baked (but doesn’t have the consistency of dulce de leche), and has absolutely no refined white flour or sugar. It’s also easy to make, tastes like a really good bran muffin, and historically it makes a lot of sense.
If you’ve read much Colonial/Post-Colonial/Westward Expansion/Manifest Destiny American literature (we could chat about the exploitative themes found in the Little House on The Prairie books and how re-reading them as an adult made me really really sad, but I’d rather cook), you know that flour and sugar were luxuries. Very little food was wasted, and what scraps they had were either repurposed (hash, anyone?) or used to feed chickens, pigs, goats, or other livestock and composted for the garden.
Smart, resourceful home cooks learned to create the daily bread with what was available: rye flour, corn meal, and molasses. Boston brown bread is a tasty throwback to that era that is insanely easy to make, goes well with a legume-based meal and is excellent for breakfast with a little toasting and butter. And the best part? No covered wagon required.
Boston Brown Bread
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup rye flower
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 cup currants (or raisins. Or dried cranberries)
2 cups buttermilk*
3/4 cup dark unsulphured molasses
- Mix everything together in a bowl (seriously. No emulsifying, no kneading, just dump it all in a bowl and stir it together)
- Bring a kettle of water to a full boil.
And now you have a choice: if you have clean metal coffee cans (I didn’t), pour your batter into those to make a traditional presentation. Otherwise, any 2-quart vessel will do*. I used a souffle dish, and it worked just fine.
- Grease/butter a piece of foil slightly larger than the opening of your can(s)*, or use non-stick foil (it’s a real thing) and loosely cover your can(s)*.
- Secure foil with a rubber band or kitchen twine
Here’s the confusing part:
- Place cans* onto a rack inside a pot large enough to 1: hold the can* and 2: fill with water to surround the can* and 3: is also tall enough to hold the can* and have the lid on.
If you don’t have such a marvelous thing, you can make a rack by folding a length of aluminum foil into a figure-8 and placing it at the bottom of your pot (remember this technique, because we’ll be using it when we steam our blue crabs next week).* As long as your can* sits securely on top and the top of the pot goes on, you’re in luck.
- Place can* into the pot on top of the rack or the looped foil
The can* in a pot on some foil on the stove with a lid. It sounds much more complicated than it is.
By now, your kettle should be whistling away (or screeching which is what mine likes to do).
- Carefully pour the boiling water into the pot, about 2/3 of the way up your can*. Cover with the pot lid, turn on the heat, and let your bread simmer for appx 2 hours until done.
Alternately, if this whole can/pan/pot/rack/aluminum foil thing is just too much to take in (I admit I almost crashed-and-burned over it), you can put your can* in a regular oven pan (with high sides, because we’re still going to steam it), pour the boiling water in there and cook it at 250º for a couple of hours, adding more boiling water as it steams away. The results won’t be quite as consistent or moist but it’ll still be pretty good.
Good served warm or cold
I never have buttermilk in the house, except when there’s some left over from the hubs’s famous banana bread. Usually, I just add some vinegar or lemon juice to sour the milk, and to be honest, I’m not terribly precise about it (this is why I’ll never be a pastry chef. I don’t do fiddly or precise very well, though I am eternally grateful that there are pastry chefs out there who do), so I generally eyeball about a tablespoon for 1-1 1/2 cups of milk. Let it stand for 5-10 minutes until the curdly bits rise to the top then pour the whole mess into your batter or dough.* For more precision, check out this link from The Kitchn.
I use “cans” in the instructions mostly because I’m too lazy to type out “cans, or souffle bowl, or any other cooking/baking vessel you decide to use” each time.
For the stovetop method, we don’t want the can* resting directly on the bottom of the pot–this can increase the probability of burning and uneven cooking (we’re calling it a steamed bread, but there’s is also some immersion/circulation cooking going on here)
Which leads, of course, to the question “why?” Why buttermilk? Can’t I just use plain milk?” That’s actually an easy one (finally! this post has been anything but easy–the baking soda requires acid to activate it. Well, acid and liquid. Unlike sweet milk, buttermilk (or its acid + milk analog) is acidic thus activating the baking soda.
And as a complete aside, this darn post, with this ridiculously simple recipe, took me almost a full week to complete. Why? Because I kept confusing myself with the instructions. Well, that and I had to delete my Post-Colonialism screeds. But really, making it is much easier than all of this sounds. Promise.