Boston Brown Bread

The early settlers of New England found growing wheat difficult: rye was easier in wet, northerly climates and on hungry, briefly settled lands. And ‘Indian’ corn - maize - the indigenous staple of north America, was easier still. Hence breads were often of mixed flours - as they had been among poorer households back in England - for instance, rye and wheat, or the ‘thirded’ breads made of wheat, rye and cornmeal.

Boston Brown Bread is one of these, and it also betrays its origins by being steamed, so simple to make in kitchens that had no ovens.

It is almost universal today to make Boston Brown Bread with bicarbonate of soda (not used until the second half of the 19th century) rather than yeast, and a healthy addition of molasses or treacle. This really makes it an aerated cake rather than bread as we understand it. It does go awfully well with Boston baked beans - another heavily sweetened savoury food.

To make this bread, you could use a 1 kg/2 lb pudding basin, as if making a Christmas pudding. However, most American cooks use an old tin can, emptied of coffee, baked beans or tomatoes, washed and well greased.

My favoured vessel is a straight-sided 1.2 litre/2 pint glass flask from a coffee maker. Grease it well with butter, and put a well-fitting disc of buttered greaseproof paper on the bottom before you put in the dough.

You will also need a small rack or trivet to keep the pudding basin, tin or flask from touching the bottom of the saucepan and, of course, a saucepan, with a lid, large enough to do the steaming.

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  • 90 g/3 oz cornmeal
  • 90 g/3 oz wholemeal rye flour
  • 90 g/3 oz wholemeal wheat flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¾ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • ½ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 225 ml/8 fl oz milk and water, mixed half and half
  • 90 ml/3 fl oz black treacle or molasses


  1. Mix the cornmeal, rye and wheat flours, salt, bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar together in a bowl. Warm the milk and water and dissolve the black treacle in it. Add the liquid to the flour mixture and bring together with a wooden spoon to a moist dough.
  2. Grease a 1 kg/2 lb pudding basin or a 1.2 litre/2 pint tin or glass flask and line the base with a disc of greaseproof paper. Grease the paper and spoon the dough into the mould. It should be somewhat more than half-full. Cover the top of the mould with a double sheet of greaseproof paper, tied securely with a piece of string.
  3. Lower it on to a trivet or rack standing in a large pan. Half fill the pan with hot water. Cover with a lid and bring to the boil. Steam for approximately 2½ hours, checking periodically to make sure it has not boiled dry.
  4. Once the bread is cooked, take the flask out of the water and turn it upside-down on a wire rack. After a minute or two, if you have greased it well enough and there are no obstructions or top lips, the loaf will drop down of its own accord. Remove it and leave the bread to cool on the rack. Eat this bread fresh.