Made from cane sugar, molasses (known as treacle in the UK) production was introduced to the West Indies by Columbus in 1493, and shortly thereafter, rum was created by fermenting the stuff. Molasses and rum later became vital trade commodities of the American Colonies and historians tell us that the British Molasses Act of 1733 was every bit as inflammatory as the tax on tea. Molasses was the most popular sweetener through World War I when the cost of granulated sugar fell. In Boston, on January 15, 1919, a tank holding millions of gallons of hot molasses cracked and flooded part of the city. The wave of sticky stuff killed 21 people, injured more than 100, and did millions of dollars in damage. It is known as The Great Molasses Flood of 1919.
There are three types of molasses, light, dark, and blackstrap.
Light Molasses. Molasses is made by crushing sugar cane (and to a lesser extent, sugar beets), and extracting the sweet juice. It is then boiled and reduced until thick. After clarifying, this straight cane syrup, called light molasses, is the purest. It is rich, and sweet, with a hint of bitterness. I use Grandma's Original Molasses in many recipes, the one with the yellow label. It is amber in color, complex, and has just a hint of buttery flavor and a kiss of bitterness.
Dark Molasses. After crystallized table sugar is extracted from the juice, usually by high speed spinning in a centrifuge, it can be boiled again, creating dark molasses, occasionally called first molasses. When I want a more robust flavor, I use Grandma's Robust Molasses, with the green label. It is a dark molasses with a rich, musky, with a distinct bitterness and a slightly burnt taste. I use it in many of my barbecue sauces, especially my Kansas City Classic.
Blackstrap Molasses. Further rounds of boiling and extraction yields second molasses, and then blackstrap molasses. Each reduction is less sweet, less pure, and more flavorful. Blackstrap is said to be the most nutritionally valuable and is often sold as a health supplement. It is also often used as cattle feed, and I rarely use it in cooking. Some molasses is treated with sulfur to aid in the sugar extraction and are so labeled. I prefer the unsulfured.
Apple Cider Molasses. This a rarity, but it has some wonderful nuances and is really worth seeking out. It is especially good in baked goods. According to the owners, John and Carolyn Loveland, apples were plentiful and sugar was not during colonial times, so resourceful cooks made molasses from apple cider by cooking it down. It takes 10 gallons of cider to make 1 gallon of the syrup (technically it is not a true molasses), and they bottle it with no additives, flavorings, or preservatives. To my knowledge, Allens Hill Farm near Rochester, NY, the only producer left. They also make apple cinnamon syrup, a smoky apple glaze, and a spiced apple glaze. I visited them in 2006 and was very impressed with the syrups and the baked goods they made with them.
Sweet sorghum syrup is a thick, sweet, dark syrup looks and tastes a lot like molasses, and it is even sometimes erroneously called sorghum molasses. It is made from a heat and drought tolerant grass named sorghum grown in warm climates. You can use it in place of molasses in most recipes and visa versa.
Steen's Pure Cane Syrup is a very nice, molasses-like syrup. It is a bit darker than Grandma's Golden Molasses, more robust, less sweet, and less bitter.
Lyle's Golden Syrup is also a cane syrup, made with an enzyme called invertase to create what is called an inverted sugar. First created in 1883, Lyle's is honeylike in color and consistency and has an elegant butterscotch character. It is required on English muffins, and wonderful on toast, and waffles, and it makes a fine glaze for ribs, but is too expensive for use in making sauces.
Real maple syrup is expensive and it is worth every penny. No imitation pancake syrup I have tasted even comes close.
The real thing is made by drilling a hole in the side of sugar maple trees in cold climates in early spring, gathering the watery sap, and then boiling it to reduce it into a thick syrup. Vermont, Maine, and New York are the three largest producing states.
There are two major grades, Grade A and Grade B. Grade A has three subgrades: Grade A Light Amber (a.k.a. "Fancy"), Grade A Medium Amber, and Grade A Dark Amber. Grade B is darker than Grade A Dark Amber. Usually the paler the color the more delicate the flavor and the higher the price. I prefer bigger bolder, richer flavor of the darkest grade, Grade B.
Pancake Syrup is usually made from high fructose corn syrup with artificial maple flavoring. Once you've tasted the real deal, there's no going back to this garbage.
I have created a separate page to discuss the facts about this controversial sweetener.
This page was revised 5/28/2012
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