A Sticky Subject

All of my life, I’ve heard sorghum syrup called molasses, so it came as something of a shock when I read recently that sorghum molasses is not considered a “true” molasses by certain authorities. These same people will tell you that the only real molasses comes from sugar cane and beets, though in the same breath they will also say it can be made from grapes, dates, pomegranates, mulberries, and carob, which certainly muddles the definition. Thoreau, in one of his more superfluous tangents, claims he made “excellent molasses from pumpkins”, but in saying so displayed an appealing disregard for the distinction between syrup and molasses.

The process for making what passes as true molasses seems complicated, since once the canes (or beets) are crushed (or mashed), the juice is boiled to make a concentrate and crystallize the sugar. This stage produces the “first molasses” which has the highest sugar content. Boiling the cane/beet juice again produces “second molasses” (!), and the third boiling produces blackstrap. This is a simple process of reduction identical to the one used to make sorghum molasses which even Harold McGee, the genius who wrote the authoritative On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, claims is a syrup. What it boils down to (sorry) is a matter of bandying terms; if I want to call sorghum syrup a molasses, then by God I will, and I do.

Like any sugar in solution (i.e. a syrup), sorghum molasses differs in taste and texture depending on the length of time it’s reduced, resulting in varying degrees of caramelization. I’ve seen blackstrap-style sorghum as well as sorghum pale as honey. Me, I prefer it light, retaining just a shadow of the golden-green color I remember it having from a dipperful I tasted as a child in Ellard, Mississippi over a simmering pan of syrup, a memory I’m more likely to realize now since rural family-run sorghum cane mills are making a comeback on the Southern landscape. Be advised that the production of sorghum molasses remains a largely commercial enterprise, and there are dozens of brands on the shelves throughout the region, but most of these are not pure sorghum molasses; if you read the ingredients, corn syrup will likely be the first ingredient listed. Unadulterated sorghum can always be found in autumn at roadside stands and farmers’ markets. Go there and find it.

 

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