The ultimate guide to molasses

Think you’re a molasses expert? Take the January 2019 Ingredient of the Month quiz for 1 CEH toward ACF Certification at acfchefs.org/CEHquiz.

Molasses is a sweetener that is formed as a byproduct of the sugar-making process. It is usually produced from crushed sugar cane or sugar beets, although it can also be made from sorghum, pomegranates, carobs and dates. It’s a sweet, thick syrup that can vary in color from amber-brown to black. While today it is often thought of as a baking ingredient, it adds aroma, color and wonderful texture to a number of sweet and savory dishes.

Turkish Tahin Pekmez / Tahini and Molasses.
Turkish Tahin Pekmez / Tahini and Molasses. Breakfast concept.

The pressing of cane to produce juice and then boiling the juice until it crystallized was developed in India as early as 500 b.c. However, it was slow to move to the rest of the world. In the Middle Ages, Arab invaders brought the process to Spain. A century or so later, Christopher Columbus brought sugar cane to the West Indies. Until the 17th century, the laborious process of refining sugar caused it to become an expensive treat only eaten by the elite. Molasses was considered the more common alternative. Prior to the 20th century, market vendors would dole out molasses from big barrels, scooping it from bulk to order for each customer. Then, in 1908, a Louisiana manufacturer developed and sold the first canned molasses.

Molasses contains calcium, copper, iron and selenium. All these nutrients help maintain healthy bones. Molasses is a good source of potassium, which promotes normal blood pressure and helps maintain heart health. Even though it contains vitamins and minerals, molasses is also very high in sugar. While it can be a good alternative to refined sugar, any sugar can be very harmful when consumed in excess.

Warm Homemade Gingersnap Cookies
Warm Homemade Gingersnap Cookies topped with Sugar

Healthy Ingredient Contribution
Values from NutritionData.com based on Molasses 1 cup (337g)

Manganese: One serving of molasses contains 258 percent of the recommended daily value of manganese. This macromineral plays an important role in the normal functioning of the nervous system and helps break down proteins and fat.

Magnesium: Molasses contains 204 percent of the daily recommended value of magnesium, which is used in many necessary body functions, such as making proteins, regulating temperature, building bones and releasing energy from muscle storage.

Potassium: Potassium is plentiful in molasses, helping to maintain normal blood pressure promoting heart health.

Vitamin B6: Molasses contains 113 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin B6. Vitamin B6 is important in cognitive functions, immune function and steroid hormone activity.

Iron: One serving of molasses contains 88 percent of the daily recommended value of iron. Iron is an essential mineral that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Without enough oxygen the body becomes fatigued which results in decreased brain function and a weaker immune system.

Calcium: Molasses contains 69 percent of the daily recommended value of calcium. Calcium plays a major role in the mineralization of bone health since 99% of the body’s calcium is stored in the bones.

Organic Black Cane Sugar Molasses
Organic Black Cane Sugar Molasses in a Bowl

Types and Varieties

Light and Dark: Light molasses, also known as “sweet” or “Barbados” molasses, is produced after the first boiling of the sugar cane or sugar beet. It is light in color and sweet in taste because only a small amount of sugar has been extracted. Dark molasses, also known as “full” or “second” molasses, results after the second boiling and more sugar is extracted. It is darker in color, thicker and less sweet.

Blackstrap: Blackstrap molasses is the syrup produced after the third boiling. It is very thick and dark in color. It is also bitter in taste. Due to its bitter taste, it should not be used as a substitute in recipes that call for molasses. Blackstrap molasses is the version of molasses that has the most health benefits.

Sulfured and Unsulfured: Molasses labeled as “sulfured” has sulfur dioxide added to it. Sulfur dioxide acts as a preservative and prevents it from spoiling. Sulfured varieties tend to be less sweet than un-sulfured products.

Selecting and Storing

  • Light molasses is the most commonly sold and is often used in baking.
  • Dark molasses can generally be a replacement for light molasses when you want a stronger color and flavor.
  • Blackstrap molasses is not a substitute for light or dark molasses. It has a more bitter flavor and is more often used in savory dishes.
  • Store molasses in a cool, dark place such as the back of a pantry. While it is not required, molasses can also be stored in the refrigerator. If molasses is kept in the refrigerator, plan when using it in a recipe so it has time to warm to room temperature first.

Blackstrap molasses
Blackstrap molasses drizzling from a teaspoon

Culinary Uses

  • Dark molasses is often used in gingerbread cookies and provides the signature color and chewiness.
  • Shoofly Pie is a molasses pie that developed its traditional form among the Pennsylvania Dutch in the 1880s.
  • Frequently, molasses appears in whole-wheat bread recipes.
  • During the Christmas season molasses is consumed in Pfeffernusse cookies. These are iced ginger cookies traditionally eaten in Germany.
  • Molasses can be added to BBQ sauces and meat glazes to enhance flavor and texture.
  • Savory recipes such as baked beans and stir-fry often utilize molasses in their recipes.

Interesting Facts

  • The first major historical event involving molasses was the Molasses Act of 1733, which imposed duties on all sugar and molasses brought into North American colonies from non-British possessions.
  • On January 15, 1919 a large molasses storage tank burst in Boston, Massachusetts. This caused a wave of molasses, estimated at 35 mph, to rush through the streets.
  • February 8 is National Molasses Bar Day.
  • Molasses is a key ingredient in producing rum.

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