Pancakes' New Topper

Move over, maple, there’s a new sweet syrup in town: sorghum. Once enjoyed mainly in the South, it’s now becoming a new favorite everywhere. Stacey Slate reports on five little-known facts about sorghum.

12.08.09 10:54 PM ET

There’s more to the syrup world than maple and molasses. Sweet sorghum syrup has many of the appealing qualities of these two popular syrups—it is thick, sweet, and sugary—but traditionally it has been used mainly in the South and Appalachia. Now it is popping up everywhere from farmers’ markets to restaurant menus. As pancakes and biscuits discover a new pairing, our eating habits are getting sweeter all the time.

Sorghum syrup is actually a juice extract collected from a tall grass called sweet sorghum. Harvesters strip the leaves off the stalk and cut the seeds from the head of the plant. The stalks are then laid out to dry for a few days while the enzymes within the cane convert starches to sugar. When the stalk is dried out, it is crushed to extract its green juice (the liquid is green because of chlorophyll in the plant). It is then boiled down to eliminate moisture and skimmed to get rid of the green juice. The result is the amber syrup known as sweet sorghum.

Its flavor, a mix between molasses and honey, is impressive on its own (try pouring directly over biscuits!) but it also adds a perfect zing to any BBQ sauce recipe.

Different from molasses (which is a byproduct of sugar), sorghum is entirely pure—so pure that when the juice is squeezed from the stalk, it must be processed within 24 hours to prevent spoilage. The seeds can be saved to plant a new crop.

Five more fun facts about sorghum:

1. It’s still king of Appalachia. Originating in Africa—the exact location is still being debated—sorghum made its way to India in 2000 B.C. and continued along the Silk Road to China. It eventually reached Europe by the first century A.D. In the early 17th century, slaves brought sweet sorghum seeds, then known as “guinea corn,” to the United States. They harvested the crop for its syrup, which became a staple in their diet. But the production of sorghum syrup didn’t become popular until the Civil War, when sugar production decreased as a result of a decline in shipments to Southern states, an increase in Union control, the eventual abolition of slavery, and the destruction of farmland due to fighting and floods. Southern farmers compensated for the sugar scarcity by harvesting sweet sorghum as a substitute. At the same time in Appalachia, mountain farmers were also harvesting sorghum and using it as a sugar substitute, as sugar distribution in that area was limited. At the height of its popularity in the early 1900s, sorghum production in the United States reached upward of 20 million gallons annually. By the end of World War II, as sugar reemerged and curiosity in glucose syrups such as corn syrup budded, sorghum remained popular only at the local level. Today, Appalachian residents still celebrate sorghum syrup as the essential ingredient in their time-honored dried apple stack cake and other traditional foods.

2. Cars could run on syrup. Global warming is an observable fact, and transportation emissions are the second largest contributor to the problem. Of course, cars can run on corn ethanol, soybeans, and even vegetable oil. But sorghum? Scientists are saying yes. Sorghum juice can be extracted for fermentation and distillation without damaging the grain at the top of the stalk. Farmers can then harvest the grain for cattle feed, thus using the grass for multiple purposes. Unlike corn-based ethanol, which takes an enormous amount of energy to produce, sorghum is a low-emission crop because it produces a larger amount of fuel than is used to grow it. It is also carbon neutral: The amount of carbon that is converted into sugar during the grass’ photosynthesis process is equal to the carbon emitted during ethanol conversion and production. Sorghum happens to be extremely adaptable to its growing conditions, and it can thrive in drought-stricken areas. Researchers assert that farmers who harvest sorghum in arid parts of the developing world would witness both economic and environmental gains as producers of biofuel, cereal grain, and livestock feed. The grass also has a short, four-month growing season, so it can be harvested more than once a year.

3. It’s molasses’ uptown cousin. Ask Tony Van Glad of Blenheim Hills Farms, New York state’s only producer of sorghum, how the syrup fares against molasses and he’ll say with confidence that sorghum is a superior sweetener. He’ll even give out a sample to prove it. I found Tony at the Union Square farmers’ market in New York City, where he eagerly offered me a spoonful of the syrup. My first taste was straight from the jar. Sorghum is sugary and almost as thick as molasses, but it does not have a bitter aftertaste. Its flavor, a mix between molasses and honey, is impressive on its own (try pouring directly over biscuits!) but it also adds a perfect zing to any BBQ sauce recipe.

4. It could be the new banana. The most promising news one could receive about a sugary ingredient is that it’s healthful. Sorghum is high in sugar, but it also has impressive levels of potassium, iron, calcium, and magnesium. In the days before vitamins, it was prescribed as a supplement for these nutrients.

5. It can be used to replace almost any sweetener. How does one develop the palate of a native sorghum lover? Here are a few basic suggestions: In baking, sorghum can be used in place of molasses on a one-to-one basis. If the recipe also calls for granulated sugar, reduce that measurement by one-third, because sorghum is sweeter than molasses. If the syrup is used on meats or in a sauce, simply substitute the syrup for molasses. Sorghum can also replace honey. For solid sugars, the conversion is more scientific: Increase the amount of sorghum used by one-third of however much sugar the recipe calls for. Decrease any liquid ingredients (water/milk) by one-third to maintain the desired taste and texture. For the pancake recipe, simply drench them with syrup.

Here are a few great recipes where you can get started with sorghum:
Maple Flavored Pea Beans
Cured Country Ham
Buckwheat Pancakes

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

Stacey Slate is a food writer in New York City. She has contributed to Mark Bittman's New York Times blog, Bitten, and is also a writer for Civil Eats and a new print publication, Remedy Quarterly.