Growing up in a household with predominantly New England and Italian cooking, I didn't have a whole lot of exposure to sorghum syrup, the molasseslike sweetener that maintains a following in the South and in some Midwest states. To be honest, I had never even heard of it or tried it until it started popping up on Washington, D.C., restaurant menus about a year ago. I've seen sorghum chili glaze on duck at one restaurant and sorghum syrup in cocktails and desserts at another. When I noticed sorghum seed incorporated into a salad, I knew sorghum was having a moment.
Mike Lata, chef-owner of Fig restaurant in Charleston, S.C., agrees that sorghum use by chefs is on the rise. "It's becoming a pretty hot ingredient now with all the attention paid to revitalizing foods from our past," he says. "When it comes to flavor, sorghum can be very complex. Interchanging it with other sweeteners can have surprising results."
Lata says that no fancy-chef recipe could beat his favorite way to eat it: "Sorghum butter on breads and warm biscuits is very delicious." He starts with a ratio of 2 tablespoons of sorghum syrup creamed into 1 pound of unsalted butter, and adds more sorghum syrup from there to taste.
A Web search for sorghum syrup brings forth musings from people who are now scattered across the states but fondly remember their Southern grandma's tendency to swath sorghum syrup over pancakes and waffles, drizzle it on biscuits and bake it into cookies. Sorghum, according to the National Sweet Sorghum Producers & Processors Association, can be substituted cup for cup in any recipe that calls for molasses, honey, corn syrup or maple syrup.
Rina Rapuano is a freelance food writer and restaurant reviewer based in Washington, D.C. She writes regularly for The Food Network's CityEats site and Capitol File magazine, and has written extensively for The Washington Post's Food section and Washingtonian magazine. When she's not dragging her husband and two kids to area restaurants, she's usually in the kitchen cooking, baking or sneaking a cookie. Find Rapuano on Twitter at @rinarap.
NSSPPA's website says:
"A United States patent officer introduced sweet sorghum to America in 1853. ... Production reached a peak of 24 million gallons in the 1880s and then declined over the next century in the face of competition from glucose syrups. By 1975, the U.S. Agricultural Census reported just 2,400 acres producing less than 400,000 gallons of syrup. There has been a recovery from this low production with 25,000 to 30,000 acres planted for syrup today."
Kentucky and Tennessee lead the pack in sorghum syrup production, according to NSSPPA.
Sorghum syrup is made from the juice extracted from sorghum cane, filtered and cooked down in open pans, becoming thicker and darker after a few hours of simmering and skimming in a wide-mouthed vessel called an evaporating pan.
The result is an amber to dark-brown syrup that is sometimes incorrectly called sorghum molasses, even though molasses is technically a byproduct of sugar cane and not sorghum cane. It is said to be high in antioxidants, as well as potassium, iron, protein and other nutrients — although it still packs in the carbohydrates and calories, like other sweeteners. It can be stored indefinitely at room temperature, and, like honey, it can be heated gently to liquefy if crystals form over time.
I was dismayed to find that it wasn't easy to buy sorghum in Washington, D.C. I looked online, where several purveyors sell the sticky stuff, but I wanted to be sure I was getting 100 percent pure sorghum. So I went straight to the source and mail ordered it from Muddy Pond Sorghum Mill in Monterey, Tenn.
After testing recipes, I'm truly glad I opted to get the extra pint. This is an ingredient that begs for experimentation.
While I appreciated its wonderful, deep flavor in the recipes I tried, I admit that this Yankee isn't yet ready for full-strength sorghum alone on pancakes — my favorite breakfast dish. I'm hoping to work up to a taste for it. Maybe one day my grandchildren will talk up my sorghum-graced flapjacks.
In the meantime, I'll start with that sorghum butter on biscuits.
Recipe: Metal Surrenders When Oak Trees Meet Fenders
This recipe comes from cocktail pioneer Todd Thrasher of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va. He recently helped open the restaurant group's new bar in Arlington, Va., called TNT, where he serves this drink named for and inspired by an Avett Brothers song called "In the Curve." Thrasher uses pinecones from his backyard, so I boiled some I found on a summer trip to the mountains. The cocktail is intense and complex, marrying the sweetness of peaches and sorghum with the smoky tang of the bourbon and pine. It's like a country song in a glass.
Makes 1 drink
1 ounce bourbon
1/2 ounce peach liqueur
1 dash (2 drops) peach bitters
1 1/2 ounces sorghum pinecone water (recipe below)
Pour ingredients into a glass. Add ice, stir and serve up.
Sorghum Pinecone Water
1 1/2 cups of water
1 cup sorghum syrup
In a pot, bring water to a boil. Add sorghum and whisk until everything is dissolved. Reduce heat and add pinecones. Simmer for 35 minutes. Strain and chill. It will keep for about a week in the refrigerator, longer if you add 1 ounce of high-proof vodka.
Recipe: Sticky Sorghum Pudding
Mike Lata, chef-owner of Fig restaurant in Charleston, S.C., is like me, a New England native — meaning he was a sorghum neophyte until he started playing around with the ingredient about four years ago. That's when he came up with these sweet little cakes that are a sorghum-spiked take on sticky toffee pudding. Somehow, they manage to avoid being too sweet, allowing the depth of the sorghum and the dates to come through. Lata says you can substitute light-brown sugar for the muscovado.
Makes 4 cakes
For The Pudding
4 ounces Medjool dates, pitted and chopped
5 1/2 ounces water
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Pinch kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 tablespoons light muscovado sugar, packed
1 1/2 tablespoons sorghum syrup
1 large egg
Ice cream or whipped cream (optional)
For The Sorghum Toffee
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup light muscovado sugar, packed
1 1/4 tablespoons sorghum syrup
For the pudding, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter and flour four 4-ounce ramekins. Combine the dates and water in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Turn off the heat and let stand for five minutes. Stir in the baking soda, and puree with an immersion blender or food processor. Reserve.
Sift together the flour, salt and baking powder. Cream the butter and sugar, then add the sorghum. While beating, add the egg. Slowly add the flour mixture until incorporated. Gently fold in the date mixture on low speed until incorporated.
Place the ramekins on a baking sheet and fill them three-quarters to the top with the batter. Place the sheet pan in the oven and bake for 30 to 45 minutes. The cakes are done when they spring back to the touch and a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in the center.
While the cakes are baking, make the toffee. Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until reduced by half, about 45 minutes. Strain and reserve.
When the cakes are done, flip the ramekins over onto the sheet pan, unmold the the cakes, and cover each with a spoonful of sauce.
Place neatly on a plate and serve with ice cream or whipped cream. Serve the rest of the toffee in a sauceboat.
Recipe: Best Sorghum Cookies
Makes about 3 dozen
1/2 cup salted butter
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1 1/2 cups sugar, plus extra for rolling
1/2 cup sorghum syrup
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, cream butter, shortening and 1 1/2 cups sugar. Beat in sorghum and eggs. Set mixture aside.
In another large bowl, combine flour, salt, baking soda, ginger, cloves and cinnamon. Blend thoroughly with wire whisk.
Using a mixer on low setting, gradually add flour mixture into creamed ingredients until dough is blended and smooth.
Roll dough into 1 1/2-inch balls. Dip tops in granulated sugar. Place 2 1/2 inches apart on greased cookie sheets. Bake for 11 minutes.
Recipe: Kale Salad With Sorghum Vinaigrette
This is another sorghum recipe from chef Mike Lata of Fig in Charleston, S.C. We played with the ratios a bit and came up with something that works well as a holiday starter or a light lunch — with a buttered biscuit or two, of course. The sorghum vinaigrette is a versatile dressing that would work with just about any green salad. If you measure the walnut oil before the sorghum, the oil left on the measuring spoon will keep the sorghum from sticking to it.
Makes 4 servings
For The Sorghum Vinaigrette
1 tablespoon shallots, minced
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1/2 cup canola oil
1 tablespoon walnut oil
1 1/2 tablespoons sorghum syrup
1/8 teaspoon salt
For The Salad
1/2 cup carrots, julienned
1 bunch (about 10 cups) kale, stemmed and torn
1/2 cup red onions, thinly sliced into half-moons and rinsed
2 large hard-boiled eggs, quartered lengthwise
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
Sorghum vinaigrette to taste
For the vinaigrette, put shallots, mustard and vinegar in a bowl and slowly whisk in the canola oil. Add the walnut oil, sorghum and salt, whisking to incorporate.
For the salad, blanch carrots in boiling water for about 30 seconds, then plunge in cold water to stop the cooking. Drain and reserve. Put kale, onions and carrots into a large bowl and dress with about 1/4 cup of the vinaigrette. Garnish with the eggs and sprinkle the sesame seeds over the salad. Serve family style on a large platter with the rest of the dressing on the side.