Updated: Sep 4, 2019
Sorghum syrup is a similar consistency and color to molasses, but is made using a sorghum cane rather than sugar cane. For generations, sorghum served as the table sweetener of choice for Southern homes. It fell out of favor in the mid-1900s, as refined white sugar, once a symbol of affluence, became much more widely available and affordable. Today, sorghum syrup can be difficult to find, but we here at Green Door Gourmet are seeking to change that with a homegrown, homemade sorghum syrup revival.
Sorghum is tall grass native to Africa that was brought to America in the 1850s. It grows well in arid and hot climates, and is drought and heat resistant. It also fares better in cooler climates than its cane sugar counterpart. The plant looks very similar to corn, but without ears. It is also a surprisingly utilitarian crop. The tall cane is pressed to make sorghum syrup, the foliage is used for cattle fodder, and the large seedhead that crowns the plant can be milled to make a gluten-free alternative to wheat flour.
Sorghum typically matures in mid-to late-fall. To harvest the sorghum sugar, the cane is cut about 6 inches from the ground. The leaves are then stripped, and the seedhead removed. Before the advent of modern machinery, this process was done by hand and was extremely labor intensive. Today, everything can be done mechanically with the help of harvesters and tractors. After harvesting, the canes are fed into a sorghum press, similar to a cider press. This press extracts the juice from the cane, leaving a greenish liquid.
Once extracted, the sorghum juice is reduced and caramelized by a slow boiling process. This can take up to 8 hours depending on the weather, the pot and implements used, and the heat. The syrup must be constantly stirred as it reduces down
As the liquid is simmering, impurities are removed to preserve flavor and clarity in the final product. Deeper brown bubbles and fewer impurities start appearing when the syrup is nearing readiness. A traditional way to test thickness is to scoop some syrup and let it run off of a spoon. When it runs slowly, like sugar molasses, it is ready to be filtered and canned. The filtration step is not necessary, however it does help to make the final product more clear.
How to Enjoy Sorghum Syrup:
Sorghum syrup has a distinctive flavor-it has a less saccharine and a more complex flavor than corn or sugar cane syrups. It has been described as earthy, woody, and even smoky, and the flavor varies depending on the process and the strain of sorghum plant used. David S. Shields, in his book Southern Provisions, describes the flavor, “Liquid sorghum tastes like the coppery evening sun: more mellow and malty than blackstrap molasses, less brilliant and wholesome than cane syrup, less piquant and poetic than maple.” (p 272) Use it as you would any sweetener--in coffee, in baked goods, barbecue sauces, or on oatmeal. One of Sylvia’s favorite ways to enjoy sorghum syrup is by mixing it with butter and slathering the sweet butter onto a hot biscuit (yes, our mouths are watering too).
Why Eat Sorghum Syrup?
Well, first of all, sorghum tastes great. It’s a complex and rich sweetener that has a whole host of applications in the food realm--think marinades, spreads, and even baked goods like cobblers. The earthy flavor adds interest to whatever you put it in or on.
Sorghum syrup is also a healthier alternative sweetener. It has a slightly lower glycemic index than refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup, meaning that it will not spike blood sugar levels as drastically as its more highly processed counterparts. Any time that you choose natural sweetener over a highly processed and refined one, there are health advantages, and sorghum bears that out. Sorghum syrup has been shown to have a more complex vitamin and mineral mix than traditional sweeteners, making it a more wholesome choice to satisfy that sweet tooth.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, when you purchase sorghum you are choosing to put your food dollars toward small farmers who strive to keep this Southern tradition alive. You are supporting those who choose to plant a crop that their ancestors planted--not because it is easy or particularly profitable, but because it has meaning. The flavor is iconic, and is worth preserving. You are supporting a tradition of small scale agriculture and community-building that is distinctly Southern. At Green Door Gourmet, we chose to plant sorghum this year in part to rejuvenate our soil, and in part to preserve this piece of our heritage. Our sorghum crop represents regeneration and revitalization not only of traditions, but also of the soil that provides us a livelihood.
When you enjoy sorghum syrup, you’re not just enjoying a sweetener. You’re enjoying a crucial part of our Southern heritage that has faded from memory, but is not forgotten.