Sweet Talk, Part 2 – Molasses, Treacle, and Sorghum Syrup (FAK Friday)

Sweet Talk: Everything You Need to Know About Molasses, Treacle, and Sorghum

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!

All About Molasses, Treacle, and Sorghum

Molasses — is a syrup made from the refining of cane sugar. The word “molasses” is derived from the Latin word Mel, meaning honey. As I discussed in part one of this series, Cane Sugar and How It’s Made, the juice of the sugar cane is boiled down until sugar crystals begin to form, then it gets spun in a centrifuge to separate the sugar from the molasses. Because molasses is the mineral-rich bi-product of refined sugar, it is often said to have many health benefits. There are several different types of molasses, including “sulphured” and “unsulphured”, as well as a variety different grades ranging from relatively light, to the very dark and bitter blackstrap.

Molasses - Sulphured vs. Unsulphured
Sulphured vs. Unsulphured — Sulphured molasses is the bi-product of sugar that has been processed with sulfur dioxide. Sulfur dioxide is most commonly used when the sugar cane is very young or green (to help ripen it), or as a means of lightening the color of molasses, and to kill off some of the naturally occurring bacteria in order to give it a longer shelf life. Sulfur is commonly used as a preservative in foods like dried fruit, to prevent oxidation. The FDA considers sulfur dioxide to be safe, though it is required that foods processed with it are labeled as such, as some people (especially those with asthma) can have an allergic reaction to it.
Unsulphured molasses is made from sugar that has not been processed with sulfur dioxide. Because it is untreated, unsulphured molasses is often considered healthier than sulphured. It also means that the sugar cane was allowed to ripen fully before harvesting, which may affect the nutritional and flavor profile of the molasses. Unsulphured molasses tends to have a less bitter taste than its sulfur treated counterpart.

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.

Treacle — is basically the British equivalent of molasses. It comes in several grades, ranging from light “golden syrup”, to dark or “black” treacle. The word “treacle” is defined as any syrup made in the refining of cane sugar. This includes molasses, though some will debate whether the two are the same or not.
Treacle comes in two main forms: Light Treacle (also called Golden Syrup), and Black Treacle. Light treacle is the equivalent of a light molasses, made during the first extraction of the refining process. It has a light golden color, a sweet, almost buttery flavor, and is commonly used in baked goods such as treacle tart or puddings. It can also be eaten as is, used in place of honey or maple syrup, or spooned over ice cream.
Black treacle is the equivalent of dark molasses (note that it is lighter in flavor and less bitter than most blackstrap molasses). It is most often used in recipes like breads, cakes, cookies, and toffee, or in savory dishes such as glazes, sauces, or stews.
Everything You Need To Know About Molasses Treacle and Sorghum
Sorghum — (also called sweet sorghum, and sorghum syrup), are made from a type of grass. The grasses grow in tall stalks, similar to corn, which are harvested and juiced. The syrup is made by boiling the juices in large pans until enough moisture has evaporated to leave behind a thick, dark syrup. This is sometimes referred to as “sorghum molasses”, but unlike molasses made from sugar cane nothing gets extracted besides excess moisture.

 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.

Besides its sweet syrup, sorghum is also used for feed and silage for animals, the production of some alcoholic beverages, and its grains are sometimes milled into a flour that can be used in gluten-free baking.
This is part two of my series on different types of sweeteners and how they’re made and used. You can check out part one here: Sweet Talk, Part 1 – Cane Sugar and How It’s Made

(All photos are copyright by me. I was not paid or compensated in any way by Grandma’s molasses, nor do I have any affiliation to them.)

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17 Responses to Sweet Talk, Part 2 – Molasses, Treacle, and Sorghum Syrup (FAK Friday)

  1. shannon weber June 9, 2013 at 11:20 am #

    once again, i am totally enthralled by FAK Friday (although as i am reading this it is technically sunday). :)
    I don’t think i’ve ever used anything but unsulphured molasses in baking myself, and i almost always use a darker variety or the blackstrap sort (i love blackstrap especially for straight-out gingerbread men at christmas). I honestly had no idea that treacle fell into the molasses/sorghum category, because i had only ever heard of “golden syrup” and never black treacle…odd? because i have tons of UK-based cookbooks (NIgella! Gordon!) and i don’t think i’ve seen one recipe calling for black treacle (although i’ve seen many for the lighter variety). i wonder how much it’s used?

    • Willow Arlen June 10, 2013 at 5:44 pm #

      Hmm, I don’t know how often or not often it’s used. It’s certainly possible that some cookbooks will use the term molasses instead of black treacle, to be more clear for US readers, but I’ve definitely seen it called for in British recipes for things like gingerbreads and cakes. I wasn’t able to find any treacle in the stores around here to try out and really see the difference for myself, but I know some places carry it. Definitely something I’ll keep my eye out for, just so I can have a better understanding!

    • apathy miller May 27, 2018 at 1:28 am #

      Try out a sticky toffee pudding recipe… Its a sweet dark rich date cake. My absolute favorite dessert. Nigela makes a pretty good one, but i personally use a combination of jamie oliver gordon ramsey and food & wines recipes combined. You can use molasses but i try to use treacle if at all possible.

  2. Sunday Morning Banana Pancakes June 11, 2013 at 5:10 pm #

    I have heard great things about black strap molasses, I have been meaning to get my hands on some- this post has me craving gingerbread!

    • Willow Arlen June 11, 2013 at 5:29 pm #

      Mmm, gingerbread does sound good! It’s weird to be craving it at this time of year, but oh well!

  3. Anonymous November 24, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

    Hi! i’m in England and black treacle (molasses) used to be used loads (parkin, gingerbread, great in flapjacks etc) but it went a bit out of fashion. However I would say that golden syrup (I have never heard of golden syrup referred to as a form of treacle, only the dark molasses) is even more out of fashion these days with the more ‘modern’ sweeteners and their marketing claims of healthiness (eg agave). However I think that molasses is coming back now that people are realising how important those micronutrients are!
    Love the article :) Lisa

  4. Harry Grafton January 8, 2017 at 8:47 am #

    At a country fair on the Ohio/Pennsylvania border sorghum is sold. When I purchased some, the ladies made a great deal of whether I needed sulphured or regular sorghum. As I recall, they said one of them (I can’t remember which) would interfere with yeast growth in recipes.

    Can anyone address this issue?

    • Willow Arlen January 8, 2017 at 9:36 am #

      Interesting question, Harry. I’ve never heard of sorghum (or molasses), sulfured or unsulfured, interfering with yeast growth. Doing some quick google searches I’m not finding any information, either, just that too much or too little sugar, of whatever kind, can inhibit yeast. This may be one question the internet doesn’t have a direct answer for. It would be great if someone who knows sees your comment and responds. Sorry I can’t be of more help myself!

  5. Toby@platefodder January 24, 2017 at 11:05 am #

    Harry, from the South, I’ve never seen sulfured sorghum molasses. Probably more a northern application. Be that as it may, I use black strap molasses as well as sorghum molasses in my oat brown bread recipe. Neither seem to inhibit the yeast growth, and either produces the same loaf of bread… albeit, the black strap is a bit harsher in flavor

    • Willow Arlen January 24, 2017 at 4:36 pm #

      Thank you for answering this, Toby! Very helpful info.

  6. Constance Frankland September 18, 2017 at 1:30 pm #

    My family comes from the Appalachian hills & mountains; I was born there in 1950 and moved west with my folks at an early age. Blackstrap molasses was infamous as the hillbilly base for “spring tonic” — a ladle-full to get the lethargy out, start your system up for long treks to school and field work at home, and tone down any sassing mouth — and many of my grandmother’s stories ended with a (real) strap application by Pa and a strong dose of blackstrap by Ma for the wrongdoer. My favorite comfort food still is molasses cookies (“sugar molasses” by my grandmother’s recipe), crunchy on the outside and soft and tangy inside. Dietary research brought me here, and I’m even more excited about using Sorghum molasses rather than organic honey for my morning oatmeal. Thanks for your article!

  7. Thelostswede May 3, 2018 at 12:54 am #

    A late addition, in Sweden we have the equivalent to golden syrup, dark syrup (not molasses though), bread syrup (with added malt) and white syrup, usually used to replace sugar in sweet wheat doughs, for say cinnamon rolls and similar.
    Molasses is normally animal feed and growing, my dad had horses and they got molasses. It’s obviously edible, but doesn’t taste too nice.

  8. Alice Hancock June 28, 2018 at 10:19 am #

    As a life-long Southerner, I was raised on Sorghum Molasses and learned early on that crystallization (much like honey), simply required putting the jar (or intended serving) in a container, place it in a hot pot of water (do NOT heart molasses in microwave or in a cooking hot water pot). The crystals elt & molasses is restored to its former condition.

    I recently read an online article saying that crystallization of Blackstrap means the molasses has gone bad. In your opinion, is that true for Blackstrap molasses?

    • Willow Arlen July 3, 2018 at 10:23 am #

      Hi Alice! I’m not an expert on the crystallization thing, as I don’t generally see it happen with the molasses I buy. I’ve had it happen with honey and maple syrup, though, and have certainly heard of it happening with molasses, but have never heard of it meaning that it has gone bad. I find it hard to believe that molasses can go bad, unless there is something else in it (moisture, or other food particles). As long as the container is airtight and not contaminated with something else, molasses should be completely shelf stable. That said, please know that I’m not on expert here — this is just my personal experience/knowledge/opinion. If you have a jar that’s started to crystallize, I’d recommend doing a bit more research online just to be sure. Hope that helps!

  9. SULABHA January 3, 2019 at 1:13 am #

    Hi ! I’m Sulabha from India. Glad to read about the variety of molasses across the world ! We use a version of molasses called “kakavi” in the regional language Marathi. This is obtained during the process of making jaggery from cane-sugar. It does form crystals if kept for a long time. Yet the syrup remains edible. However, “kakvi” has to be consumed within a short period of opening the sealed bottle, else it starts fermenting in the hot climate of India !
    We use it like jam, to eat with chapati/roti (Indian unleavened bread, or as a sweetener in some home-made food products. Since it is in liquid form, water is not required in the particular recipe, which would have been necessary if replaced with sugar (being a dry sweetener).

  10. British person December 6, 2019 at 11:23 pm #

    Not true. In Britain we call golden syrup, golden syrup and we call treacle, treacle. They are not the same, and not interchangeable regardless of the fact that “treacle” tart etc is often golden syrup-based. It’s just a misnomer in that case.

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