COLUMN: Molasses takes ‘slow food’ literally

By Candace Nelson - 10:00 AM


Here's my latest column in the Charleston Gazette-Mail:

Locally grown and produced food is sometimes referred to as “slow food” — the very antithesis of fast food.

And, it doesn’t get much slower than molasses. Get it?

Molasses is a thick, dark, sweet syrup that is made from the leftovers of the sugar-making process. Juice is extracted from sugar cane and then boiled down until sugar crystals form, which are then removed to be used as sugar. The leftover syrup is liquid gold.

Until the late 19th century, molasses had been the most popular sweetener in cooking and baking in the United States due to its being far cheaper than sugar. But after World War l, refined sugar prices dropped drastically and resulted in a swift migration in consumer spending toward white sugar. Appalachia, though, oft remote and dedicated to traditions, likely held onto molasses making for far longer because it was more accessible and inexpensive.

“For hundreds of years, molasses was considered a poor substitute for sugar, and its pungent flavor was not thought to be suitable for the finer tables and more developed palates in the land,” writes Sidney Saylor Farr in “More Than Moonshine: Appalachian Recipes & Recollections.”

“The expense of sugar was not a deterrent to wealthy people, but people less affluent had to rely on other means of sweetening their food, such as using honey and molasses.” Sorghum has also historically been a popular sweetener in the region, and has a similar manufacturing process to molasses. It’s made from the sorghum plant, and while it is sometimes referred to as “sorghum molasses,” the origin plant (sugar cane vs. sorghum) is what differentiates the two syrups.

Molasses typically has a deeper, richer flavor with notes of sweet, burnt caramel. It gives gingerbread its characteristic flavor and color. It is also what takes white granulated sugar to brown sugar. That flavor lends itself to old-fashioned recipes, especially in baked goods that are popular around the holidays — spice cake, ginger cookies, fruit cake and more.

In cooking, molasses often plays a role in baked beans, pork dishes and more. So if you have any molasses left over after making those gingerbread houses and baked hams over the holidays, consider making use of it like our ancestors did when you find the need for a sweetener.

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