Sourdough New England Brown Bread

If it’s Saturday night in New England, baked beans and brown bread are on the menu.

New England brown bread

Have you ever attended a traditional New England public dinner or church supper? If so, you are no doubt familiar with the delicious, whole grain goodness that is steamed New England brown bread. (If you have never had the opportunity, get yourself to a public supper ASAP! You are missing out on one of the best meals of your life. But more on that later.)

When I was a child growing up in Eastern Maine, Saturday supper meant baked beans from scratch (you can find my recipe here), homemade macaroni and cheese, steamed winter squash, something green – usually a salad, those god-awful red hot dogs that Mainers love, and cans of steamed brown bread, cut into rounds and lathered with butter.

Traditional New England Brown Bread

Brown bread is a bit sweet, dense enough that steaming it doesn’t make it mushy, but not too dry either. I didn’t know it as a kid, but brown bread is also full of healthy, nutritious ingredients like whole grains and iron-rich molasses. Over the years I have gotten away from serving a traditional New England dinner every Saturday – although I do still occasionally pull one together – but we probably could all do with more brown bread.

Despite this traditional upbringing, my mother didn’t make brown bread from scratch, and I was well into my adult years before cooking it myself. I have followed several recipes, all good, but usually baked the bread instead of steaming it. However, a couple of weeks ago my oven up and died. Since its replacement won’t be here for ages, and I was having bread withdrawal, the first thought that came to mind was steamed brown bread. I had some extra rye sourdough starter that needed to be used for something, so I added it to the recipe.

As you might expect, two great things added together improved on both. The starter added extra complexity to the bread and really accentuated the tangy rye. Any sourdough starter could be used, but the rye starter worked well with the traditional ingredients. See how to make a specialty starter on my previous post. This was the best, the absolute best, New England Brown Bread you will ever eat.


Sourdough New England Brown Bread
Add sourdough starter to a traditional brown bread recipe for a taste-bud exploding treat.
Cuisine: New England
Recipe type: Breads
Serves: 20 slices
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup yellow cornmeal
  • ½ cup dark rye flour
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup raisins, optional (I used currants for this version)
  • ¾ cup blackstrap molasses
  • 1½ cups milk
  • 1 cup rye sourdough starter
  1. In a large bowl, combine all dry ingredients.
  2. In a smaller bowl, mix together the molasses, milk, and sourdough starter
  3. Pour the liquid mixture into the dry ingredients. Stir to mix well.
  4. Grease the inside of 4 wide-mouth pint canning jars with butter.
  5. Divide the dough among the jars.
  6. Cover each jar with aluminum foil.
  7. Place jars in a canning basket. Lower basket into a water bath canner with boiling water. The water should be about ⅔ of the way up the jars.
  8. Reduce heat and steam bread for 1 - 1½ hours or until done. Check occasionally to make sure the canner doesn't boil dry.
  9. Remove from canner. Let cool slightly. Remove bread from the jars. You may need to run a butter knife down the side of the jar to gently dislodge the bread.
  10. Cool on a cooling rack.
  11. Sliced bread can be steamed to re-heat.
  12. Optional Steaming Directions:
  13. Use a large pot instead of the water bath steamer. Place something on the bottom of the pot to keep the jars off of the bottom, canning lids or crinkled aluminum foil or a steamer basket would work. Instead of canning jars use 4 clean, 15 oz cans.
  14. Optional Baking Directions:
  15. Spoon batter into a greased bread loaf pan. Bake at 325 degrees for one hour.

 Traditional New England Church Supper

A traditional New England public dinner or church supper takes the home-based Saturday dinner and improves on it – if that is even possible. Public dinners can still be found in small towns all over New England, often served at the local Grange Hall or held as a fundraising event for schools, churches, and other groups. Along with the baked beans and brown bread, you will no doubt find freshly baked yeast rolls, macaroni and cheese, corn scallop, potato scallop, coleslaw, apple pie, and other local specialties.  Hie thee to a dinner today!

by Renee Pottle

Renee Pottle, a freelance writer and Home Economist, is fanatic about all things food. She blogs about canning and food preservation at Find her professional food writing info at

February 5, 2015

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