Cooking Sorghum Molasses a Sure Sign of Fall's Arrival

By Patricia B. Mitchell, 1990.

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Milling the sorghum canes

Members of the Climax (Virginia) Ruritan Club mill the sorghum canes at their fall festival, ca. 1990. Their portable mill is driven by the power take-off of a tractor.

Boiling down the syrup

After milling to extract the juice, the syrup is cooked down to a thick molasses.

Amanda Crews and Patricia Mitchell

Patricia Mitchell (right), at the December 8, 2001 Gretna (Virginia) Christmas Parade with Amanda Crews, Climax Ruritan Club's “Miss Sorghum Queen.”

Sorgos, a tall cereal grass which resembles corn, is sometimes called “brown corn,” and can be used as fodder. Virginians of the Appalachian Mountains and the Piedmont, though, eye the crop appreciatively with another product in mind: sorghum molasses, a golden deep brown syrup with a sweet, heady flavor. This thick liquid is akin to molasses extracted from sugarcane, but sorgos will grow in cooler climates than will sugarcane.

Sorghum-making is a traditional autumn activity which is now the basis for many fall festivals. Locally, the Climax Ruritan Club hosts a sorghum festival, as do organizations in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, southern Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee. At these pre-frost production demonstrations leaf-stripped sorghum plants are fed into a cane mill which squeezes the juice out of the stalks. (These mills are sometimes powered by engines, but the old-fashioned way is horse- or mule-power.)

Once the liquid has been extracted from the stalks it is cooked down. Debris is skimmed off the top of the boiling juice and after eight more hours a rich, incomparable syrup remains. This dark delight is funneled into jars for eager buyers.

Six acres of land will yield about 60 tons of stripped cane. The roller presses of the mill squeeze out 360 gallons of juice, which is cooked down to 30-60 gallons of sorghum molasses. The left-over squeezed sorgos canes, called “chaws,” can be fed to cattle, sheep, or goats. Lucky humans enjoy the sorghum 'lasses on biscuits, cornbread, and in baked goods.

It can be used interchangeably with sugarcane molasses, and it is especially marvelous in baked beans and gingerbread. Top-rate sorghum is even wonderfully palatable taken “straight,” so sample a spoonful at a nearby festival — you will then most likely want a jar (or case)!