What Is The Difference Between Sorghum And Molasses?

If you thought these two sweeteners were the same—think again.

pouring out syrup

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Chances are you’ve run into more than a few Southern recipes, from savory to sweet, that call for sorghum or molasses, like our Molasses Crinkles, Sorghum Custard Pie with Cornmeal Crust, or Sorghum-Tahini Vinaigrette, to name a few. And while many people think of the two ingredients as being the same thing, they are in fact quite different: sorghum syrup is made from the green juice of the sorghum plant, while molasses is the byproduct of processing sugar cane into sugar. Though they look alike and have some similar uses, they are otherwise distinctly different.

Where Do Sorghum and Molasses Originate From?

The sorghum plant is a tall grass, often mistaken for corn, native to Africa, which arrived to America around the 1850s and quickly spread through the South because of its ability to withstand dry growing conditions and hot temperatures. Sorghum syrup promptly became an alternative for sugar and molasses. Alternatively, molasses came from the Caribbean, the earliest hub of the sugar cane industry, to be used to make rum. Until the 1880s, it was the sweetener of choice as its cost was next to nothing compared to refined sugar. 

How Are Sorghum and Molasses Produced? 

Though advanced production methods are in place today, in Muddy Pond, Tennessee, you’ll find Mark and Sherry Guenther of Muddy Pond Sorghum Mill still giving old-fashioned sorghum syrup-making demonstrations with a horse-drawn mill. Sorghum syrup is made from the green juice that results from crushing the stalks. The juice from the crushed plant is then heated until excess water has evaporated and the juice is slowly reduced and caramelized to the right thickness, leaving you with just the sorghum syrup you know and love.

On the other hand, molasses is the result of processing sugar cane into sugar. It is made by stripping the plant’s leaves then crushing the cane to extract the juice, which is then boiled. As the juice is boiled, sugar crystals are formed and the thick, brown liquid left is the molasses.  Unlike molasses, sorghum just becomes a thicker syrup the longer you boil it rather than crystalizing, hence why it is referred to as a syrup.

How Do Sorghum and Molasses Taste Different?

Molasses comes in a few varieties that are a result of the boiling process, each with their own flavor profiles—hints of sweet, sour, and salty. The most common one is light molasses which has the most mild flavor and is great for baking. Dark molasses is the result of a second boiling and loses some of its sweetness, making it better for more savory cooking or paired with other strong flavors, like ginger. Lastly, blackstrap molasses is the super thick, bitter version that comes from the bottom of the barrel and is used more sparingly. Sorghum on the other hand, while there’s only one version, is more complex with nuanced flavors and has a thinner consistency and slightly more sour, but still sweet taste.

Ways To Use Sorghum and Molasses

These dark-hued sugar substitutes are a great alternative, especially in baking, but they are also used specifically for the unique flavors they bring to any dish or baked good they’re added to. “I put it in my coffee; I put it on everything!” says Sherry Guenther, who has yet to find something sorghum doesn't taste good on. If you haven’t had the Southern delicacy of sorghum syrup-soaked pancakes, sorghum butter smothered on a flaky biscuit, or spread on a slice of cast-iron skillet cornbread, then you’re missing out. As for molasses, you can use it in many of the same ways, especially for fall baking, but consider which type of molasses you’re using as they vary in flavor and intensity—lighter is better for baking, while the darker is suited for grilling. 

While deciding which one to use is typically up to personal preference, you'll always find me reaching for Tennessee-made and Southern-loved Muddy Pond Sorghum Syrup.

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