Adventures in steamed bread.

bread-steamingAs part of my low-maintenance prepper campaign, I’ve been thinking about ways we could cook if a major earthquake led to a loss of electricity. We’ve got a burn barrel and a Weber outside, and if the gas were still on we could manually light the stovetop (but not the oven).

We’ve got tons of staples on hand and could likely outlast a major emergency, even if all our shiftless relatives showed up to camp at the house with a fireplace insert and loads of flour and beans. One thing we couldn’t do easily? Bread.

Thus I’ve been researching recipes like stovetop corn pone, tortillas and other relatively simple staffs of life. When I recently got a copy of “The Kitchen Stories Cookbook: Comfort Cookin’ Made Fascinating and Easy,” my eyes fell upon a recipe for Boston brown bread.

The result is literally steaming in the photograph. (DF snapped the picture shortly after the first pieces were cut.) It was the perfect antidote to a cold winter night when paired with a thick soup made from boiling-bag broth, a pint of home-canned turkey, and whatever vegetables we had on hand.

My theory is that fresh bread, or even fresh tortillas, can make an ordinary meal – or an emergency one – seem much nicer than it actually is.


Ours was never a steamed-bread family. In fact, we made bread recreationally rather than regularly: cinnamon rolls or challah on a weekend because such things tasted great. We never kneaded up Italian bread to go with stew or loaves for sandwiches.

As a kid I remember reading about Boston brown bread and wondering what it tasted like. But at that point in my life the idea of brown bread – healthy bread – didn’t sound like fun. We were all about white bread, a dozen loaves at a time from the bakery outlet. So I never even thought of making it.


A non-traditional steamed bread

What I made on Monday wasn’t a true Boston brown bread, which is traditionally made with rye, graham and wheat flours. The “Kitchen Stories” recipe uses all-purpose flour and cornmeal, although it suggests you can substitute other grains.

I liked this version: nicely gritty because of the non-degermed cornmeal I used, and sweet from the molasses. “It tastes like a big cookie,” DF noted.

The loaf was as dense as a freshman senator, though, hitting the breadboard with a serious THUNK after it slid out of the can. Not surprising, since it doesn’t have a touch of yeast; only a bit of baking powder. While I greatly enjoyed the bread that night, I wondered if it would be edible – or even cuttable – the next day.

Slicing it the next morning was kind of like sawing through a cement block. Yet the bread was quite delicious after a quick stint in the toaster oven and a gloss of butter. We’ve been eating it every morning and it still tastes like cookies.

Not the healthiest bread in the world, surely. But in the event of a prolonged power failure we could produce it without an oven. And in the event of a prolonged failure, a hot loaf of fresh bread could do wonders for morale.


Nourishing us twice

Bonus: It was a fun project. You might want to try it yourself.

I used a Costco-sized peanut can, well-greased, set in a slow cooker. If there were a power failure, of course, we’d use a pot on the stove (if the gas were still available), or on the Weber or burn barrel.

Although I worried that the slow cooker wouldn’t be hot enough, but it was done right on schedule: after three hours. It doesn’t have to boil, incidentally – just steam.

Many years ago I interviewed a single mom about dealing with dark winter days in Alaska. She had a bread machine and a slow cooker, and she programmed them both before she left for work each morning.

When she and her hungry kids got home each night they were met with the irresistible fragrance of fresh bread, which made whatever she had in the slow cooker taste marvelous. To paraphrase Thoreau, fresh bread feeds us twice: once with its aroma and again with its taste. That’s true of even the densest of steamed loaves.


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  1. MMMMMMM…. I need to make a loaf! That picture makes it look delicious!

    • Donna Freedman

      It’s pretty darned good for breakfast the next day, too.

      • Hello, thanks for writing this article. Is there any way that you could tell us the recipe ? I suppose with permission from the author. I’m particularly interested in how you would steam it in a pot on the stove, and on a Weber Grill. Thank you.(My oven uses electricity..and i have a grill).

        • Donna Freedman

          Here goes:
          Mix 2 cups cornmeal, 1 cup flour and 1/2 tsp. baking powder. Add 1 cup buttermilk* and 1/2 cup molasses and mix well. (Add raisins and/or chopped nuts of desired. You can also substitute a mix of rye and graham flours for the wheat flour.)

          Pour into pan, can or medium-sized ovenproof mixing bowl that will fit into a steaming kettle or slow cooker; fill no more than two-thirds full. Whatever container you choose, be sure to grease it very well.

          Cover with heavy foil or tight-fitting lid and set into the pan or slow cooker, making sure water comes about halfway up the outside of the baking container. Steam for three hours.

          We toasted the leftovers in a toaster oven for breakfast. Very tasty.

          *I used powdered buttermilk instead of liquid.

  2. Flat reads are easy to cook on the grill. “Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes” has great recipes.

  3. Good idea! You can bake bread over a fire, but typically it’s for flat breads. I do like making my own bread. I’m Picky about bread and holy crap is fancy bread expensive at the store ($4/loaf). It’s much cheaper to make your own for daily use. My favorite is ciabatta, but it’s definitely a labor of love.

    Thanks for the tip on steaming bread though! I’ve never heard of this and it would definitely be great in a pinch.

  4. Anyone on here Gluten Free? Looking for emergency flat bread and quick bread solutions to jazz up those meals when things go south.

    • I am gluten free, and I have to laugh to myself when people consider bread a necessity. I occasionally eat gluten free bread, but it is not a healthy choice, no matter how you slice it (pun intended). Life can be lived just as well without bread…I am so much healthier now than my pre-Gluten Free days.

      • Donna Freedman

        Plenty of things that are strictly “necessary” still add delight to our lives. Travel. Chocolate. Crossword puzzles. Wine. Sex after the wanted number of children have been achieved, or sex among the child-free.

        A lot of people *do* enjoy various forms of bread while living robust lives, which is why I’m not able to agree with you that it “is not a healthy choice.” To each his own.

        • Carolina Cooper

          Way back in 1973, when my kids were little, I told my mother in law that I wished I knew how to bake bread, but that I was no good at following recipes. Voila! She gave me a book called “Let’s Bake Bread” which is really a book for kids (i.e, each step is on a separate page, with a photo). I learned to bake bread from that book and I still use it today over 40 years later. The bread fed us in more ways than one, because it was great fun to bake bread WITH the kids, and we have lots of memories and photos of that time so long ago. The book and the bread fed us and fed our souls. You are right that bread may not be what your reader called “necessary” but I would not trade that book, its end product nor the memories for anything.

          • Donna Freedman

            It is fun to teach kids to bake. When DF’s granddaughter visits he sometimes has a batch of bread ready for kneading. Like most 4-year-olds, she thinks it’s great fun to plunge her hands into the stuff. “It’s like Play-Doh!” she exclaimed once.

            He’s interested in teaching her where food comes from, e.g., the greenhouse and the raised beds. Or from the oven.

        • It is definitely a different mindset that I have in regards to food. Because of the effect various foods have on my body, I don’t live to eat, but rather eat to live. That’s why I said bread is not a necessity. Enjoyable? Yes. But not needed to survive. I know way more about the effects of food on the body now, and eat accordingly. It also made me realize the reality of the obesity epidemic in this country, and what a huge problem it is becoming. I just choose to nourish my body differently than the average person.

  5. I’ve recently discovered oatcakes. Basically, you make a thick oatmeal, then thicken further with flour (any kind) until a soft dough forms. We like ours savory, seasoned with sage, but sweet would probably work as well. Shape into patties with floured hands (The flour is important, because they are sticky!) and fry in a little oil until golden brown on both sides.

    Easy, and if you can tolerate oats and use GF flours, gluten-free.

    We also like johnnycakes, fried cornmeal mush.

    I’ve baked yeast bread in my slow cooker, and though the result wasn’t as good as in the oven, it was certainly respectable. The instructions said not to place the pan directly on the bottom, so I folded aluminum foil into strips and bent them into zig-zags to make a down-and-dirty trivet.

    If you have one, you can do tons of cooking in a Dutch oven over a fire. A friend of ours, who used to be a costumed interpreter at a nearby historic site, did a lot of her baking that way, including lemon meringue pie! And I’ve just suddenly realized – a slow cooker might make a reasonable substitute for a Dutch oven as long as the power is on, which opens whole new angles in searching out new recipes…

    • Oh! Forgot to say – so cool that you have a description for your photo, instead of the usual “TH”. Love it!

      The brown bread sounds delicious – may have to give it a try sometime soon!

    • Donna Freedman

      Funny you should mention that: DF has a Dutch oven and plans to do some research on best over-the-fire cooking methods. In “Cross Creek,” Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings talks about making icebox rolls in a Dutch oven, with coals underneath and also on top.

      I’ve lately been seeing articles about making bread and pizza crusts in the slow cooker and they, too, suggest those X-shaped foil strips so the loaf/crust can be lifted out easily. The steamed bread just needed a knife around the edge of the loaf and then a good strong tap on the bottom of the can and it thunked right out. (I greased it really well.)

      Will give those oatcakes a try, as we have a lot of oatmeal on hand. In fact, I just bought a bunch more because it was 74 cents per pound in the bulk bins at Fred Meyer. Last fall I’d stocked up (about 35 pounds) when it was, I believe, 68 cents but since then we’ve emptied a few gallon jars.

      Thanks for being such a consistent reader and commenter.

  6. “The loaf was as dense as a freshman senator”

    One of your best lines EVER!!! LOL

      • Carolina Cooper

        Boston brown bread goes great with a little cream cheese spread on it, too! Got to say I also guffawed at the line “dense as a freshman senator.”

        • Donna Freedman


          When I lived in the South Jersey area I used to buy a date-nut bread that went well with cream cheese. This brown bread recipe suggests adding raisins and/or nuts; maybe I’ll try that. Prefer dates, though.

  7. Cakester

    I make boston brown bread with raisins in it, my Dad’s recipe. Even my roommate who did not like raisins loved that bread fresh from the oven. Fresh, homemade bread is magic.

    • Donna Freedman

      Yep. And that’s why I want to be able to produce it — whether as a loaf, a pone or a tortilla — during times of even semi-emergency. Fresh bread just makes whatever you’re eating that much better.

  8. Kate Nelson

    I can whack out Bisquick biscuits in no time flat. I’ve baked them on our outdoor gas grill, and while they weren’t quite as fluffy as we’re used to, they were decent. Nothing like hot bread for making a meal feel special.

    GF folks — if you can get your hands on a brand called Bob’s Red Mill, you will find a wide variety of GF grains, mixes, etc. I’ve been very satisfied with their products. In the New England area, the cheapest place to get them is at Ocean State Job Lot.

    • Hello, how do you make Bisquick biscuits on an outdoor gas grill please ? Do you have to use special pans ? Thanks

  9. Fresh bread is an antidote for most of my blues. If we could handle an extra appliance, my vote would be for a breadmaker three times over.
    Sherry’s oatcakes sound awesome, I might have to give them a try this week if I can muster up the oomph.

  10. You might want to google…”damper”….an Australian outback tradition….bread cooked in the ashes of a fire.

    • Donna Freedman

      Funny, my friend and I were just talking about this recently. She’s been to Australia and eaten damper. I remember reading about it in “The Thorn Birds” when I was a kid.

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