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New England Brown Bread

Having scored myself an antique Boston beanpot, this weekend I'm going to spend the day slow-cooking Boston baked beans and steaming a loaf of New England brown bread to go with it. (I'm assigned to the work on-call pager that day, so I'll be stuck in the house with time to slow-cook.) I've been looking into the history of New England brown bread, such as it is, and one question I can't seem to find an answer for is: why is it steamed in a can? You could use a glass cooking bowl or some other dish to cook it, so why did they steam it in a can? Was it convenient to use a spare storage can to steam the bread?

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  1. Cans are free and sized so that you can steam several at one time. Never underestimate Yankee frugality.

    1. I don't have much knowledge about the history of brown bread, but I do know that Jasper White's recipe is absolutely delicious. I steamed it in Irish oatmeal cans on high in my crockpot.


      1 Reply
      1. re: bear

        I can't help but to notice Jasper White's suggestion that the Pilgrim's learned this steaming method from the region's Native population.

      2. I know that cans are traditional and all that, but this is one of those instances where I just bake the thing in a loaf pan. I really don't believe the steaming contributes much to the overall flavor or texture besides taking much much longer.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Klunco

          Steaming keeps it moist and prevents a crust from forming. Steamed sweet and savory puddings and breads are traditional in England.

          1. re: Klunco

            I also bake it in a loaf pan, which to me seems like the easiest method (as I DO have easy access to an oven, and loaf pans, but don't use a lot of tin cans). It's still plenty moist because of the molasses.

          2. i'm sure there is a reason for the why? Not from knowledge, i am guessing that the original was steamed over a fire, steaming being more accessible than baking. Bread and puddings could be steamed over an open fire,so no need for an oven. but a food historian would really help here.

            2 Replies
            1. re: opinionatedchef

              Looks like Alton Brown did a piece specifically on what he calls "Boston brown bread" ("Pantry Raid X - Molasses"), in which he theorizes that the grains used in brown bread were all used in the "distillation of spirits," and thus this brown bread rose from brewing hooch. Molasses was well known for its usefulness in making rum, and Boston was the molasses capital of the British Empire for a while, etc. etc...but on the show, Alton also showed a cylindrical metal tin with a lid that, he said, was used by the Puritans for steaming this brown bread. The cylindrical shape of the tin allegedly gave rise to the tradition of steaming it in a can. It's as good a theory as any, I suppose; though the idea of frugal New Englanders using leftover cans also seems possible.

              1. re: Modemac

                where ARE those food historian researchers when we need them?!

            2. I was told growing up that it was so the bread would keep on board ship: you could boil a tin pretty easily and comparatively safely, so it became a way of having fresh bread long after you left port. No idea if this has any basis in reality, but as an adult it was the story I always told my Australian friends when I'd have to explain why every house I lived in had to have the mysterious 'bread in a can' in the cupboard. (Explaining the also-requisite jar of Fluff was another matter entirely.)

              8 Replies
              1. re: TimTamGirl

                when i lived in tacoma fluff and autocrat coffee syrup were good for plenty of conversation.

                1. re: TimTamGirl

                  You'd think a moist bread would spoil faster.

                  1. re: trufflehound

                    while i'm thinking molasses may have preservative qualities, i'm not sure it's relevant.In this case, if TTgirl and I are close to being correct, what trumps preservation is the ability to have bread in the first place. Also. it would be made every day, most likely, so preservation not an issue.

                    1. re: opinionatedchef

                      Molasses, as well as honey do have preservative qualities. It's all about osmotic pressure. Water will move from areas of greater osmotic pressure to lesser pressure. Since super saturated sugars like molasses and honey have a very low osmotic pressure, water from the insides of bacterial cell walls moves into the sugar, killing off the bacteria in the process. It's why honey doesn't spoil, and why it was used for centuries as an antiseptic on wounds. To keep on topic, I could never stomach brown bread in a can (though we only ever had the B&M mass produced stuff with hot dogs and beans in my youth).

                  2. re: TimTamGirl

                    Ha! For any australians questioning your Fluff, i have but one word.

                    1. re: opinionatedchef

                      Well, it's Vegemite down there... but you're not wrong, all that stuff is *feral*.

                    2. re: TimTamGirl

                      I thought ships breads were hardtack and the slightly more refined pilot bread - dry cracker like things that kept well, as long as they were kept dry and free of bugs. Boil-in-a-bag puddings like spotted dick would have been main sweet bread/dessert

                    3. The Short answer is.......as long as you steam it, the container is irrelevant. The Cans would transmit heat faster and in the days of coffee cans they were used.......but back when....the bread was made in glass or ceramic molds

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: FriedClamFanatic

                        'scuse the pickiness, but there was no glass cookware when MA was settled; iron and pottery/ 'redware' were used. Glass technology was a later development.

                        1. re: opinionatedchef

                          true, there was no glass cookware back then, and I suppose I should have used the word "pottery" instead of ceramic, but the point being, the coffee-can technique is not critical

                          1. re: FriedClamFanatic

                            yes, absolutely correct. so sorry i didn't mention that.I must have been channeling my (well meaning) perfectionist /engineer father.

                      2. This is a fascinating discussion! All I can contribute to it is to say that I grew up eating a fair amount of commercial canned brown bread. Sometimes the accompanying baked beans were homemade, sometimes they were canned, too. Sliced wieners or kielbasa may have been involved: I'll have to check with grandma on that one.


                        1. foodtimeline.org:

                          <American Cooking: New England," Jonathan Norton Leonard, Time Life Books, (p. 35+) devotes an entire chapter to 17th Century Puritan/Pilgrim grain cookery. This book explains why the Puritans did not use white flour (too expensive & fancy; rye, wheat & corn flours were plentiful & cheap). As for why this brown bread was steamed rather than baked, this book notes that the first New England homes were very crude thatched huts and few had ovens. Cooking was generally done over an open fire. Steaming was an effective way to make bread without an oven. After time, this cooking method established itself as the traditional way to prepare brown bread (oft served as a Sunday meal with baked beans). Other theories suggest that steaming was employed because Puritans were forbidden to cook on the Sabbath.

                          "Boston brown bread. Also, "brown bread" and Boston bread." A rye-flour bread made with molasses. Boston brown bread was well known among the Puritans, who served it on the Sabbath with Boston baked beans. It was often made with graham flour."
                          ---Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, John F. Mariani [Lebhar-Friedman:New York] 1999 (p. 36)
                          [NOTE: "Graham flour" was whole wheat flour, promoted aggressively in the 1840s for health.] >

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: opinionatedchef

                            Thank you for all of your input to this thread, O-Chef. Your point about there being a lack of glass and ovens in those days sounds like it's closest to the mark; also, canning wasn't invented until the 1800s. It likely developed into an ongoing tradition to make brown bread in a cylindrical tin, which would have become associated with the bread. As far as I can tell, brown bread came back into fashion in the mid-1800s, and that's when fancier ingredients such as raisins were added to it. It seems likely that because the newly-developed science of canning was taking hold right about then, the re-introduction of brown bread used a can because it resembled the look of the Puritan bread tin, plus it gave folks an excuse to use cans as part of the canning fad. From there, it would suggest that it became traditional to make the bread in a can, and thus it stayed. From there we can see the origin of B&M brown bread in a can.

                            1. re: opinionatedchef

                              Looking up 'thirded bread' (the use of 3 flours to cut the cost of using straight wheat), turned up this discussion of colonial bread baking

                              Modern brown bread uses baking powder (or soda with the molasses). But that is a mid 19th c invention. So previous breads had to be yeast leavened, or as discussed in that thread, some sort of sourdough. And there were various ways of 'baking' bread in a hearth, such as the dutch oven.

                              I wonder if the steamed-in-a-can version derives from the English steamed suet puddings. Suet puddings are somewhat porous because solid fat melts leaving voids.

                              Anadama is another New England bread that uses thirded flours, but it's a more conventional baked yeast bread.