Solve This Riddle

A puzzle for you – a stockpot of water simmers away on a stovetop.  Inside are two metal cans, topped with aluminum foil and rattling slightly.  What’s inside?

Here’s a visual for you:Baking BreadIf you guessed the cans hold bread, your advantage, or you’re from Boston, where people have been boiling bread in cans for centuries, since the colonial era.  Originally, pudding tins were used to do this, but ever since the mid-1800s metal cans have been widespread, and they’re one of Bostonians’ favorite means of baking bread.

It’s much more appetizing than it sounds, actually, and as this week’s picture shows, the bread is surprisingly dark, too.  This is due, no doubt, to generous amounts of rye and whole wheat flours that go into each loaf, making it much more “substantive” than what would be expected from something boiled in a can.

The biggest surprise, though, is in how moist and sweet the bread is.  Yes, sweet.  In addition to the flours mentioned earlier, cornmeal supplements the ingredients list and imparts a lightness in both taste and texture.  Molasses lends an unmistakable succulence, making Boston Brown Bread a perfect part of every meal, from breakfast through dinner.

It was this versatility that drew attention to the preparation when Cook’s Illustrated featured it in the 2017 recipe collection.  Though Brown Bread is fairly familiar to many New Englanders, it’s a pleasant surprise for the rest of us.

While you’d never mistake Brown Bread for pound cake, it also is denser and sweeter than what you’d expect a “dark” bread to be.  It’s superb, as pictured above, warm, with a dollop of creamy butter slowly melting into every pore.

One license in our example is that it contains dried cranberries, whereas the original is studded with raisins.  Unfortunate, as the author doesn’t care for raisins.  Hates them, actually.  However, dried cranberries are a good and close substitute, and it’s fitting that one of the world’s best spots for growing cranberries is in the marshlands at Boston’s southern reaches.

The final mystery – why does the can rattle when cooking?  Literalists may point to the agitated water jostling it, but it’s more charming to think it’s a great loaf of Brown Bread, waiting to make an appearance.


Boston Brown Bread

  • 3/4 cup rye flour
  • 3/4 cup whole wheat flour
  • 3/4 cup cornmeal
  • 1 and 3/4 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  •  1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 and 2/3 cups buttermilk
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 3 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled slightly
  • 3/4 cup raisins (*1)

In a large stockpot, bring 3 quarts (12 cups) of water to a simmer.  Fold in half two 16″ by 12″ pieces of aluminum foil to create two 8″ by 12″ rectangles.  Spritz with vegetable oil spray (i.e., Pam) a four-inch circle at the middle of each rectangle, as well as the interiors of two clean 28-ounce tin cans.

In a large bowl, whisk together all the dry ingredients.  In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, molasses and melted butter.  Stir the raisins into the buttermilk mixture.  Add the buttermilk mixture to the dry mixture and stir until combined.

Divide  the batter evenly between the two cans, and wrap the two cans tightly with the aluminum foil.

Place the cans in the stockpot.  The water should come halfway up the cans’ height.  Check the stockpot occasionally and add water as needed to maintain this water level.  Cook the loaves for two hours.

Using a jar lifter (*2), carefully remove the cans and transfer them to a wire rack to cool.  After twenty minutes, slide the loaves from the cans and let them cool for a hour longer.  Slice (*3) and serve.


1 – As mentioned in the opening text, I don’t like raisins, but I do enjoy cranberries, so the substitution was obvious.  Besides, cranberries are at least as culturally appropriate, inseparable as they are from Boston’s agricultural history.

2 – A long pair of tongs works just as well.  I could’ve borrowed a jar lifter, but I already have a tool on hand that’s as effective.

3 – Use a knife with a serrated blade; a straight edge tends to crush the bread.



6 thoughts on “Solve This Riddle

    1. It was new to me as well, Daniela, and I’m from the Northeast too. My initial skepticism nearly prevented me from giving it a chance. “Bread in a can? You mean people actually eat this?” Fortunately, curiosity prevailed.
      By the way, I did receive your email, about a week ago, and I responded at some length. It turns out I’d prefer the gift card, thank you. Thank you for your generosity, and for remembering!

      Liked by 2 people

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