“Great sorghum is said to have the flavor diversity of great wine: a persistent floral, citrusy tang that dances above the predictable caramel and molasses flavor — and a bright mineral balance.”
— Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills
Your grandmother’s pantry — or her mother’s pantry — most likely included a jug of sorghum or molasses, two of the South’s favorite sweeteners. Sorghum butter was a staple at my grandparents’ table. Many Southerners, especially in the Appalachian Mountains, mix sorghum directly into sweet cream butter on their plates to form a luscious spread for hot biscuits or cornbread. Sorghum, also called sorghum molasses or sorghum syrup, offers more than just sweetness. It’s a lighter-bodied syrup than molasses, and its flavor is more complex with hints of caramel, tanginess, and Southern umami.
Sorghum, a cane-like grass resembling maize, was domesticated in Africa around 3,000 B.C. and is especially valued in hot, arid regions for its resistance to drought and heat. Many varieties are available, and they are topped with a rainbow of colorful seed heads or panicles (e.g., deep red, white, yellow, purple, and bronze) that create vibrancy in the fields. Sorghum is an important cereal crop in Africa and Asia; when cooked, the grains resemble Israeli couscous. They are ground into flour for unleavened flatbread and porridge.
Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench), or “Guinea corn,” arrived in Colonial America around 1750. Benjamin Franklin was the first to write about sorghum, and it is reported that he cultivated sorghum seeds plucked off his European broom, which was fashioned from broomcorn, a sorghum variety with stiff, branched panicles. In 1835, South Carolina Gov. John Hugh Means (1850-1852) obtained Johnson Grass seeds (Sorghum halapense) from Turkey for forage.
Grain sorghum was not grown extensively until 1853; during the same year, D.J. Browne, an agricultural agent for the U.S. Patent Office, introduced Chinese sorgho (sweet sorghum) into this country. Seed was distributed to the Northern states.
French researchers suggested that the saccharine content of sweet sorghum varieties might be an alternative to sugar cane for producing sugar. Refining the stalk juice into sugar crystals proved to be difficult, but it was successfully processed into syrup for the first time in America.
British merchant Leonard W. Wray of Natal, South Africa, conducted experimental plantings of 15 varieties of South African sorgho throughout Europe. At the request of renowned American newspaper editor Horace Greeley, the sorgho plantings (grouped as Imphee grasses) were carried to South Carolina and Georgia in 1857 for distribution to Southern farmers. They were used by James Henry Hammond (former South Carolina governor, 1842-1844), who had conducted experiments with Chinese sorgho to produce sugar and syrup. Sorghum plantings also began to take root in the Midwest.
When cane sugar production declined during the Civil War years, inexpensive sorghum syrup was plentiful and widely used in the North and the South — said to be “submerged in sorghum.” By the early 1900s, the U.S. was annually producing 20 million gallons of sorghum syrup. It was especially popular during World War II, when sugar was rationed. Production fell drastically with the declining farm labor after World War II, but sorghum syrup still remains an important sweetener for many small communities. North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia are currently among the leading sorghum producing states.
Sweet sorghum is a multi-purpose crop yielding food grains, silage, building material, ground cover, and fermented alcoholic beverages. Studies are being conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy to use sweet sorghum stem juice as a source of biofuels. A 10-foot sorghum plant can be used for ethanol without damaging the food grain growing at the top. Called a “living factory,” sorghum can be converted into vegetable oil, industrial alcohol, adhesives, waxes, dyes, and other products.
It is also highly nutritious — one cup of cooked, whole sorghum grain offers 20 grams of protein. It is rich in thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and trace minerals such as iron, phosphorus, and potassium.
A serving of sorghum contains around 30 percent of the recommended intake of both niacin and thiamin — B-vitamins that help metabolize and properly absorb carbohydrates and nutrients. Sorghum is gluten-free, rich in antioxidants, and a good source of fiber. Mothers across the South once supplemented their children’s diet with a daily spoonful of sorghum or molasses. Vitamin pills were just beginning to appear in the 1920s.
Ancient Grains, Modern Methods
Although sorghum is best known as a syrup, it is in the midst of a renaissance, thanks to the farmers, chefs, food scholars, nutritionists, and consumers who are taking a look at the benefits of eating all forms of this ancient grain and preparing it in creative ways.
New research at the Clemson University Pee Dee Research and Education Center aims to offer South Carolina farmers alternative crops with increased nutrition and commercial viability, such as grain sorghum.
East Coast Gullah farmers are currently planting White African Sorghum, which has excellent seed grain quality and high saccharine content. It is the only distinct strain to survive of the original varieties brought to America from South Africa by Leonard W. Wray. Former S.C. Governor Hammond was the first to grow it extensively. Known by the Zulu name, Enyama Imphee, it is essential for making guinea corn porridge.
Anson Mills’ founder Glenn Roberts grows heirloom sorghum and processes it into small-batch syrup in Columbia for research chefs. While the grain and sorghum are not yet available for retail, his delicious, easy recipe for Sorghum Butter is included in this article.
Joe Trapp, owner of Joe Trapp’s Grits in Blythewood, is a “Midlands’ master” of sorghum-making. Occasionally in the fall, he holds a sorghum boil over a wood-pit fire at a local farmers’ market in Columbia. It is a sweet, unforgettable experience. Cleansed of impurities, the juice is concentrated into bronze-color syrup by evaporation in open pans and then skimmed during three different rises in temperature.
In grocery stores and markets, sorghum can be found as a whole grain for boiling and serving like rice; puffed and mixed into multi-grain products like breakfast cereals and bars; or added to breads, porridges, beverages, and snack foods. Steeped in history, tradition, and agriculture, sorghum is good eating in any form and deserves a place at the table!
Sweet as Molasses
Molasses was an important ingredient in Colonial America. Mixed with water in equal parts, fermented, distilled and aged, it was turned into rum. It was a key ingredient in foods such as chewy molasses cookies, molasses-basted ham, gingerbread, baked beans, stack cakes, shoofly pie, Indian pudding, and molasses pie, which was a forerunner to pecan pie. In England, dark, strong molasses, called black treacle, was used in licorice, treacle toffee, sticky toffee pudding, and other sweet and savory dishes.
True molasses, which is a light-to-dark, thick, brown syrup, is a by-product of sugar production that forms when sweet, vegetal sugar cane juice (Saccharum officinarum) is cooked down. The juice contains around 14 percent molasses and 86 percent sucrose; the molasses must be separated from the sucrose. (The fibrous leftover cane, or bagasse, is often used as fuel.)
The process for making sugar (crystallized sucrose) takes place in several steps; each step results in a different grade of molasses. After the first boiling of the nutrient-rich juice, the crystallized cane sugar is centrifuged to separate it from the syrupy liquid, a mild-tasting molasses that still contains some sugar. It is the most popular type and excellent for baking or as a table syrup. Grandma’s Original is a mild brand that is minimally processed.
The second boiling yields a slightly less sweet, darker molasses, preferred by individuals who enjoy a richer flavor. Use it for making spicy gingerbread, molasses cookies, dark breads, savory barbecue sauces, or baked beans.
Intensely flavored blackstrap molasses is the brown-black residue left after the third and subsequent boilings. High in sodium, it is low in moisture and sugar, which is deeply caramelized. Occasionally, blackstrap is called for in meat cookery and barbecue, but it isn’t recommended for baking. Commonly used in animal feed, some enthusiasts purchase food-grade, blackstrap molasses in natural food stores for its rich concentration of minerals.
Sulphured molasses has been treated with the preservative sulphur dioxide. It may be added when young sugar cane is processed to give it a more mature, ripened taste. Unsulphured molasses made from fully ripened sugar cane is preferable, since its sweet, clean taste is free from chemical flavors. Most commercial brands are the unsulphured variety.
Tips for Using Sorghum And Molasses
If a syrup lid is stuck to the jar, hold under hot water a few seconds; dry, and open.
Syrups keep two to three years unopened; when opened, use within one year.
Store syrups at room temperature. If crystallization occurs, set the jar into a pan of hot water or warm on low heat in the microwave.
The syrups contain invert sugar that is hygroscopic (it holds moisture well). This helps baked goods (even some candies and frostings) stay soft and fresh longer. Invert sugars also make it difficult to crystallize sweet sorghum sugar.
Bob’s Red Mill produces gluten-free, white Whole Grain Sorghum, which has a hearty texture and mild, nutty flavor. The tiny sorghum grains can be popped into miniature popcorn kernels. The company also produces white sorghum flour.
For savory foods, replace one cup of molasses with an equal amount of sorghum, maple syrup, or dark corn syrup.
Sorghum can be used in place of honey in nearly any recipe on a one-for-one basis. The only exceptions are cookie and cake recipes that use baking powder, where the change may prove troublesome. Recipes that call for baking soda will not be a problem.
For cakes and cookies, sorghum can be substituted equally for molasses; however, cut the amount of any granulated sugar in the recipe by one-third. Sorghum is sweeter than molasses.
Under most circumstances, do not replace all the sugar in a recipe with sorghum; only replace 50 to 75 percent. Substitution ratios may vary somewhat among recipes.
If replacing some of the granulated sugar with sorghum, increase the amount of sorghum by one-third, and then decrease the amount of liquid (milk and/or water) by one-third to keep the liquid and sugar amounts in balance.
Molasses is naturally acidic; use with a little baking soda to help baked goods rise.
For easy removal, grease measuring cups before adding sticky molasses or sorghum.
Sorghum and light molasses (first boil) can be used as a table syrup and poured over pancakes, breads, and ice cream.
Spicy Molasses Cookies
These warm, spicy, cookies can be cut into shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day — or into a variety of interesting shapes to celebrate any holiday or occasion. If desired, decorate cookies with chopped nuts before baking.
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 cup butter (1 stick), softened
1/2 cup packed, light brown sugar
1 large egg
2 tablespoons prepared coffee or water
1/2 cup dark molasses or sorghum
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Stir together flour, baking soda, sea salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger; set aside. In a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed, beat butter for 1 minute. Beat in the sugar, and then add the egg, coffee, molasses, and vanilla. Lower the speed slightly, and then blend in about half of the flour mixture. When the mixture comes together, add remaining flour, blending a few seconds; finish stirring ingredients together by hand. Wrap and chill dough overnight. Preheat oven to 360 degrees F. Roll out dough in portions of about 1/4 inch thick between sheets of parchment paper or on a lightly floured surface. Keep remaining dough chilled. Cut into shamrocks or other shapes. (Or roll dough into balls; flatten into rounds on a baking sheet with the bottom of a greased, flat glass dusted with flour.) Place 1 inch apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Bake 6 to 8 minutes or just until the cookie edges become firm and the bottoms turn golden brown. Remove to wire racks to cool at least 10 minutes. When completely cool, decorate with frosting or as desired.
Molasses Pecan Pie
Molasses pie is the forerunner of pecan pie and an old Southern favorite. Embellish this pie further by stirring in 1/4 cup of small, dark chocolate chips. Another option: Stir in 1 or 2 tablespoons of quality bourbon or dark rum. Pie can be made in a 9-inch pie plate or 9-inch fluted, nonstick tart pan with removable outer ring. The pie is delicious even if you don’t add nuts.
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup dark molasses or sorghum
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups chopped, toasted pecans, almonds or walnuts, if desired
1 unbaked, 9-inch pastry shell or 1 refrigerated pastry sheet (for the tart pan)
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the sugar, molasses, and eggs. Stir flour into the milk; mix well into the molasses mixture. Add nuts. Pour into the pie shell. Bake 10 minutes at 425 degrees F; then lower the oven heat to 375 degrees F and continue baking pie about 20 minutes or until the filling sets. Cool slightly and then serve warm; refrigerate leftovers.
Anson Mills’ Sorghum Butter
This easy, but essential, recipe comes from Anson Mills’ website. Recipe for the breads that are mentioned below are available at AnsonMills.com/recipes/512.
Anson Mills touts: “The best sorghums, and we mean few and far between, are evaporated over live fire in an open black iron kettle. Made with good sorghum, sorghum butter is unsurpassingly magnetic in its appeal — and irresistible on hot cornbread.”
For this recipe, you will need a hand or stand mixer with the flat-beater attachment and a rubber spatula.
4 ounces (8 tablespoons) unsalted European-style butter, room temperature
2 ounces (about 3 tablespoons) sorghum syrup
Pinch of fine sea salt
Using a hand or stand mixer, whip the daylights out of the butter until it is fluffy and satiny-soft. Reduce the mixer speed and drizzle in the sorghum. Add the salt. Increase the speed and beat until the sorghum is fully incorporated, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula. Turn the butter into a small bowl or a large ramekin. Serve soft with hot Black Skillet Cornbread, Blue Corn Johnnycakes, Graham Biscuits, or any other hot pancakes, griddlecakes, or biscuits that suit your fancy. Makes about 1 cup.