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Friday, May 18, 2012

Is it Sorghum or Molasses?

If you have ever wondered--and who hasn't?--what the difference is between sorghum and molasses, here is a lot more than you care to know.

Pure sorghum, sometimes called sorghum molasses, is made from the natural juice extracted from a plant called sorghum cane. This juice is cleansed from impurities and concentrated by evaporation in open pans, producing a mild flavored syrup. Sorghum was used to make confections and flavor meats by America’s early settlers. Not to be confused with molasses, which is a bi-product of the sugar cane, sorghum is often used on biscuits, in cakes, cookies and in baked beans.

Shoofly pie (or shoo-fly pie) is a molasses pie considered traditional among the Pennsylvania Dutch--The state of Maine's claim to it is suspect. The more common version of the recipe — sometimes referred to as "wet bottom" — consists of a layer of sweet, gooey molasses beneath a crumb topping sometimes compared to that of a coffee cake. In contrast, a "dry bottom" shoofly pie is more thoroughly mixed into a cake-like consistency. Its distinctive flavor and texture is quite alluring and nostalgic. Sorghum is grown by some Amish farmers often grow forage sorghums primarily as silage for livestock. They are sometimes grown and harvested with soybeans to improve the protein content of the silage. 

Growing Sorghum Cane looks much like corn without the ears.  Instead of tassels on top like corn, it has clusters of many seeds.  The seeds are small and round about 1/16" in diameter.   It grows 6 to 12 feet tall and 1 to 2 inches in diameter at the base of the stalk.

After the cane matures (90 to 120 days)   it must be harvested.  This is the most labor intensive part of the 
whole process. Harvesting is done by striping it of its leaves by running a thin bladed stick swiftly down each side of the stalk. Knocking the leaves off as the stick goes buy.  Then the "head" of seeds is removed.   Next the stalk is cut off close to the ground.  All that is left is a stalk 5 to 11 feet tall, 1 to 2 inches in diameter at the end closes to the ground and about a 1/2 inch in diameter at the end closest to where the seeds were.

 The cane is then taken to the mill.   It is hand fed into the mill a few at a time depending on the size of the mill and its power source.  The rollers in the mill crush the stalks which squeezes the juice out of the cane.  The juice is collected into a container to await cooking.

After enough juice is collected to fill the first section of the evaporator pan it is strained to remove pieces of stalk that might have been left in the juice.  It is poured into the first compartment of the evaporating pan.  A fire is built under the pan using wood or sometimes more modernly gas.  The pan is divided into compartments so that several "batches" can be cooked at one time facilitating a continuous cooking process. The juice must boil.   While the first batch is cooking, more cane is being squeezed and juice collected.   When enough for another batch is collected  the first batch is moved into the second compartment and the second batch is poured into the first compartment.  The process is repeated eventually filling all compartments in the pan.  When the juice reaches the last compartment it must be watched carefully so that it is removed at just the right time.  This is the part that takes practice and know-how.    Remove it too soon and it will not be done.  Wait to long and it will be thick and have a strong taste.  The whole time that the juice is cooking, until the last compartment or two, it must be skimmed.  This involves running a skimmer across the top of the cooking juice to remove the skim that forms on top which is the impurities cooking out of the juice. There is another method of cooking the syrup that is called a batch method.  It is made basically like the above paragraph describes except the pan is not divided into compartments.  It is just one large pan about 3-4 feet wide, 8-10 feet long and about 12 inches deep.  Here the juice is cooked as one large batch.

Eat the finished product.  Fans have their favorite uses.  Mine is over hot biscuits with butter on them or in cookies, either reminds me of my grandma's kitchen. These steps may be preformed in slightly different orders but generally this is how it is done. 


Molasses is made from sugar cane. Sugar cane is not grown in northern climate. Unsulphured molasses is the finest quality. It is made from the juice of sun-ripened cane and the juice is clarified and concentrated. Sulphured molasses is made from green sugar cane that has not matured long enough and treated with sulphur fumes during the sugar extracting process. Molasses from the first boiling is the finest grade because only a small amount of sugar has been removed. The second boil molasses takes on a darker color, is less sweet and has a more pronounced flavor. Blackstrap molasses is from the third boil and has the strongest taste. It is high in Iron and used for medicinal purposes. Blackstrap is also used in the manufacture of cattle feed.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the great article on molasses and sorghum. My grandfather, of German heritage and born in 1899, used to grow and make sorghum on his farm in south-west Missouri. Unfortunately, my interest in traditional methods did not manifest itself until after both my grandfather's and my mother's passing. I remember as a child asking what the large "tray" was stored with grandfather's tools (batch cooker). Thanks, again. Now when I buy the "store-bought" sorghum (for my BBQ baked beans) and molasses, I'll which kind to make them right.

11:02 AM  
Blogger GaryDena said...

Thank you for the interesting article. Enjoyed learning about sorghum.. Don't hear about it much in canada .. At least I haven't

10:06 AM  

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