Days like these ain’t too common ’round these parts. Before the summer swelter, before the humidity and heat-stroke. The perfect kind, where the sun is shining but the nights are cool, and the early June air fills the lungs like perfume. These are the kind of days you wish would last forever, like time were moving slow as molasses, and every moment were just as sweet.
There’s something about the word molasses. Just the mention of it, and all my thoughts come spilling out in a Southern drawl, sweet and slow as, well… you guessed it.
Besides the South, molasses makes me think of the holidays, and gingerbread, and dark, chewy molasses cookies. It makes me think of English puddings, and Boston baked beans, and the distilling of rum. And yet, with so many culinary uses, I know surprisingly little about this syrup, which brings us to today’s subject. If you’ve ever asked yourself what the difference is between “sulphured” and “unsulphured” molasses, or wondered what treacle or sorghum are, well… this is the article for you!
Light and Dark Molasses — cane sugar goes through several phases of refining. In the first phase, the cane juice gets boiled until the sugar crystals begin to separate from the liquid, then spun through a centrifuge which separates the sugar from the molasses. This first processing is called mild, or first molasses. It is the sweetest and lightest of all the grades. The syrup then gets re-boiled and spun again to remove more of the sugar. This results in a darker syrup called second molasses. On the third boiling, many of the remaining sugars begin to caramelize, darkening the syrup even further. This final extraction of molasses is called blackstrap. This is the darkest grade available, with a somewhat bitter flavor. Blackstrap molasses is often used for its nutritional benefit, containing nearly 20% of our daily need for calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron per tablespoon, among others (though this may vary depending on brand).
Molasses in Cooking — molasses has many uses in the culinary world, but is most often used in baking. Because molasses is naturally acidic, it can be used alongside baking soda to help baked goods rise. Molasses also contains a type of sugar called invert sugar (the result of boiling sucrose with an acid) which is particularly hygroscopic (meaning it holds onto moisture well). This can help baked goods stay soft and fresh longer. Molasses is also used in the making of many beers and liquors, and in recipes like stews, chili’s, and baked beans. Lighter, sweeter molasses can be used as syrup on pancakes, a spread for biscuits or toast, or used in other applications as a substitute for maple syrup or honey.
Molasses can also be made in the refining of beet sugar, though it is considered unpalatable for human consumption and therefore used mostly in animal feed. In some parts of the world, different types of molasses are made from carob, dates, grapes, pomegranates, or other fruits, and can go by a variety of different names.
In many ways, sorghum syrup is very similar to molasses. It has a thick consistency, dark color, and sweet caramelized flavor (often times sweeter than regular molasses). Like molasses, it is also high in many vitamins and minerals, including iron, calcium, phosphorus, and b vitamins. Sorghum syrup can be used as a substitute for molasses in many recipes, but is most frequently eaten over hot oatmeal, pancakes, or grits. In the south, sorghum syrup on biscuits is a common tradition.