Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Boston Brown Bread

Boston brown bread, served with cream cheese.
Found on Wikimedia Commons, Author (?) jeffreyw
Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated by recipes.  As a young child, I enjoyed reading cookbooks to get more of them.  Sometimes, I still do.  It's a great way to enjoy more food than you can eat without actually overeating.

Anyway, I was looking on the Internet for baked bean recipes to cook (not just because they make interesting reading) when I spotted a reference to something called "Boston brown bread."  Since I'd never heard of it, I went to Wikipedia to track down some basic information about this tasty-looking item. 

According to Wikipedia, Boston brown bread is a sodium bicarbonate quick bread--like Irish soda bread.  Unlike Irish soda bread, Boston brown bread is made with both whole wheat flour and rye flour, and sweetened with molasses--hence its brown color.  It is considered the traditional accompaniment to baked beans, which is why it was referred to in the baked bean recipe I was reading.  

The Food Timeline has some interesting information about this bread.  It cites Boston brown bread as an explicit example of the phenomenon I referred to in my soda bread post.  First, a simple home-cooked food item is simply food for the poor.  As time goes on, that food acquires an aura of healthiness, because it is so basic.  Eventually, it becomes an item made and sought out by "foodies" for its culinary values other than nutrition (e.g., healthiness, flavor).

Boston brown bread often included corn meal--like rye and whole wheat, another cheap flour that could be exploited by the poor to make their meals more interesting. In fact, the same bread, minus the raisins, was called "Rye and Indian" or "Rye and Injun" bread because rye flour and cornmeal were its main ingredients.  Another variant, "thirded bread", was made with equal parts of rye flour, whole wheat flour, and cornmeal.  All of these were thought of as "make do" breads by the folk who lived on them, and were quickly abandoned by most once white bread became cheap.

Unlike soda bread, which was either baked or pan fried, Boston brown bread was often steamed in a container, such as a coffee can.  The Food Timeline claims that this is because early New England houses didn't have ovens.  Instead, they used a fireplace for cooking, and "[s]teaming was an effective way to make bread without an oven."  It also results in a food that looks a lot like what the British still call a "pudding"--a steamed bread, often with raisins or other sweet additions.

Because it's steamed, Boston brown bread is ideal for the slow cooker--all you need is a suitable container to steam the batter in.  I hope to experiment with some recipes for it later this year.


  1. When I was a kid, a tasty treat was the stuff in a sealed can that you prepare by putting the sealed can in boiling water

    1. Yup, that's the same stuff all right. I gather it still can be found in supermarkets in New England, but I've never seen it in stores around here.