Boston Brown Bread is a yeast-risen, very moist brown bread made with molasses that is traditionally steamed in cylindrical 13 oz (400 ml) volume metal coffee cans, to make loaves of bread that yield round slices of bread. It is usually served warm.
Traditionally, it is made from wheat flour mixed with rye flour and cornmeal, though some versions now use whole-wheat flour instead. You can’t actually taste the rye flour in traditional versions.
Raisins can be added for a tea version.
Some unorthodox versions that barely count as Boston Brown Bread swap in soy sauce for the molasses, or mix and bake the bread in a bread machine. Some people say they prefer it baked. Purists sniff that whatever a person likes, if you bake it, it’s Baked Brown Bread, or Bob’s Brown Bread, etc — it’s any kind of brown bread but Boston Brown Bread it is not. There were, though, some recipes from the 1800s which had you bake it in an oven. Fannie Farmer, though, said “steam it.” (She also said that you could use 1 pound baking powder tins, or make larger loaves in five-pound lard pails.)
But don’t try making up a regular recipe for Boston Brown Bread and then baking it in the oven. The recipes will count on the moisture from the steam. Steamed versions don’t have any fat added to them, but baked versions do, to compensate for the moisture that would have been taken in during steaming.
The leavener for the bread is provided by the interaction between baking soda and buttermilk (though you could also use water, and count on the interaction between the baking soda and the molasses.)
A coffee tin is filled 3/4 way full with the dough, then covered with tin foil, and put in a pot filled with enough boiling water to reach half-way up the sides of the tins.
The tins are steamed in the simmering water bath for about 1 1/2 to 3 hours (recipes vary in cooking time.)
The bread is unmoulded from the tin while still hot out onto a rack. The dough will have shrunk away from the sides of the tins, making it easy to get out. If it’s really hard to get out, you can sacrifice the tin by opening the bottom with a can opener and pushing it out.
You can now buy Boston Brown Bread already made in a can.
Boston Brown Bread is good with baked beans, or with cream cheese spread on it.
Some swear the best way to slice Boston Brown Bread is with dental floss.
Steaming, though it took longer than baking, provided a way of cooking bread that didn’t require access to an oven, which not everyone had.
Mixing in rye flour and cornmeal stretched out the more expensive wheat flour.