Molasses used to be the primary sweetener used in days of
yore until refined white sugar pushed it to the back of the shelf. It has a distinctive flavor that brings extra sparkle to
spice-laden recipes such as gingerbread, fruitcake, cookies, toffee, baked beans and sauces.
A little history
The English term molasses comes from the Portuguese melašo
which in turn is derived from the Latin mel, meaning honey. Melasus (sic) was first seen in print in 1582 in
a Portuguese book heralding the conquest of the West Indies. Molasses was exported to the U.S. from the West Indies
to make rum. High taxes were levied on molasses by the British via the Molasses Act of 1733, but the duties were so widely
ignored by U.S. colonists that the taxes were reduced in 1764 in hopes more would comply.
Up until the 1880's, molasses was the most popular sweetener
in the United States since it was much cheaper than refined sugar. It was considered particularly
tasty with salt pork. After the end of World War I, refined sugar prices dropped drastically resulting in the migration of
consumers from molasses to white sugar crystals. By 1919, U.S. per capita consumption of white sugar was twice what it was
in 1880, with most Americans completely switching from molasses to granulated white and brown sugar.
In January of 1919, a huge vat of molasses at the Purity
Distilling Company in Boston exploded. What came to be known as the "Great Molasses Flood" killed 21 people
and spilled two million gallons of molasses into the streets.
Interestingly enough, molasses now costs about twice as
much as refined sugar. Along with industrial alcohol and rum products, molasses can also be used to make yeast, cure tobacco
and in cattle feed.
What is it?
Molasses is a delicious by-product which is extracted during
the refining process used to make sugar crystals. The sugar cane is crushed to remove the juice which is then boiled vigorously.
Machines utilize centrifugal force to extract the sugar crystals from the syrup. The remaining syrup becomes molasses. The
flavor and color of molasses varies depending on how early or late in the process the molasses is extracted. In Britain and Eurupe, it is often referred to as black treacle.
All varieties can contain sulphur depending on the specific
refining process used, but unsulphured products (lighter in color and smoother in flavor) are available. The lighter the molasses,
the sweeter it is. Here are the different varieties of molasses:
Blackstrap molasses: The syrup remaining after the third extraction of sugar from sugar
cane. Blackstrap (derived in part from the Dutch stroop, meaning syrup) refers to its color, which is extremely dark.
It has a very strong, somewhat bittersweet flavor with a heady aroma. This variety is best used in recipes rather than as
a straight sweetener such as pancake syrup. It contains many of the nutrients left behind by refined sugar crystals. By measure,
it is 55% sucrose, the least sweet of the varieties.
Medium or Dark molasses: Remains after the second processing of the sugar. Not as strong
as blackstrap. About 60% sucrose.
Light molasses: Syrup remaining after the first processing of the sugar. It is generally
unsulphured and the lightest as well as sweetest variety. It is often used as a syrup for pancakes and waffles or stirred
into hot cereals such as oatmeal. 65% sucrose.
Treacle: True treacle dates from Victorian times. A pale, refined molasses,
it is notably sweeter and has a much more mellow flavor than molasses. Nowadays, treacle is a blend of molasses and refinery
syrup and ranges in color from light gold to nearly black. British treacle can be substituted for molasses in most recipes,
but much less frequently will molasses work as a replacement for treacle. If you do substitute molasses for treacle, use the
lightest, unsulphured molasses you can find.
Sorghum molasses: Technically, this is not molasses. It comes from the sorghum plant,
a cereal grain which is grown specifically for molasses rather than refined sugar. It is also referred to as unsulphured,
West Indies or Barbados molasses. The syrup is made from the juice of the stalk which is cooked and clarified.
The result is smooth with a clear amber color, free of sediment or graininess. Although it contains no sulphur, it generally
does contain perservative added to lengthen its short shelf life. When substituting for other sweeteners, use one-half to
three-fourths of the sweetener amount called for in the recipe. Since it can ferment, sorghum molasses should be kept refrigerated
unless you go through it fairly quickly. 65% to 70% sucrose.
Heat and humidity can cause molasses to get moldy. Store it
in a cool, dry place and be sure it is tightly closed. You can also store it in the refrigerator if you don't use it often.
Anticipate your use and let it rest at room temperature for half an hour before you need it otherwise it will be thick and
difficult to pour. Store unopened molasses in a cool, dark place for up to one year. Once opened, it can be stored for another
twelve months in a very cool location if you are careful to wipe the lip of the bottle clean and securely seal it after each
In the Kitchen
Molasses is present in brown sugar, thus the stronger flavor.
Molasses contains calcium which retards softening in some foods, particularly beans. If you are making baked beans with molasses
as a flavoring, they will cook much more slowly if the molasses is added at the beginning rather than the end. If you want
the molasses flavor infused into the beans, add it in the beginning and plan on a long cooking time. Luckily, in spite of
the long cooking time, the calcium in the molasses will help the beans retain their shape rather than turn to mush. If you
want the beans to cook more quickly, wait until they are nearly done to add the molasses and brown sugar.
Tips and hints:
• 1 pound molasses equals 1-1/3 cups. 12 fluid ounces equals 1-1/3
Before measuring molasses, lightly spray the measuring
cup with vegetable oil and it will slip out more easily.
goods using a lot of molasses tend to darken more quickly. Reducing the oven temperature by 25 degrees should do the trick.
• Although light and dark molasses are interchangable in recipes, be aware that using
the dark will intensify flavor and slightly darken the end product and vice versa.
• Molasses is naturally acidic and may require the addition of baking soda to counteract it
in baked goods. Use 1 teaspoon baking soda added to the dry ingredients per 1 cup of molasses when substituting molasses for
• 1 cup of corn syrup can be substituted
for 1 cup of molasses, but the result will be less sweet and lose the robust flavor of the molasses.
• In baking, 3/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup of water can be substituted for 1 cup of molasses.
Increase the spices to compensate for the loss of the molasses flavor.
• Do not substitute blackstrap molasses for light molasses as the flavor may be too overpowering.