You’ve probably got it, even if you’ve forgotten about it. It’s hiding right now in a dark corner of your pantry. You remember it only when you want to bake gingersnaps, or a batch of baked beans. Otherwise, it languishes.
Once upon a time, though, that bottle of molasses — a natural sweetener made from juice extracted from sugarcane stalks — was more popular than sugar. And its history is anything but saccharine.
American-history students are familiar with the triangular trade, the looping route taken by ships during the colonial era between Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and the North American colonies. Manufactured goods from Europe were traded for African slaves which were traded for molasses in the Caribbean which was made into rum in New England which was then traded for manufactured goods in Europe . . . and so forth, a vicious cycle detailed much more thoroughly in the classic Sidney Mintz study Sweetness and Power.
But there’s more to molasses history. Residents of Boston, for example, have long been told the tale of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919. January 15 was an unusually warm day; the temperature had shot up to 40 degrees and the break in winter weather had people out, enjoying the day in the North End neighborhood. Towering 50 feet above street level was a tank filled with over two million gallons of molasses, slated to be turned into rum by the United States Industrial Alcohol Company.
Crisis struck when the tank failed, unable to contain the weight of molasses. The sticky brown syrup exploded from the tank in a flash flood. Some say the wave reached 15 feet high and ripped through the streets at a shocking 35 miles per hour. Buildings were torn from their foundations; people and horses were tossed like rag dolls. When the rush was over, more 150 people had been injured and 21 killed, in addition to countless horses and dogs. The clean-up took weeks, and it’s been said that on particularly hot days, the neighborhood still smells of sweet molasses.
Brown sugar, of course, is simply refined white sugar mixed with molasses. To make your own, measure out one tablespoon of molasses for every cup of white sugar and mix with a fork until combined.
Molasses wasn’t just distilled down into rum; the stuff was once America’s go-to sweetener, stirred into coffee, poured atop pancakes, and brushed onto salt pork. These days we favor white sugar, which is simply a more highly refined version of molasses. But, thanks to its more complex flavors and nutrient content, molasses is making a bit of a comeback.
Molasses can be either sulphured (made from unripe sugar cane) or unsulphured (made from ripe sugar cane), and is packaged according to flavor and color: light, dark, mild, and full-flavored. Blackstrap molasses is the darkest and thickest; it’s also rich in such minerals as iron, magnesium, and potassium. For the molasses that’s been treated with the fewest chemicals and retains the most nutrients, buy unsulphured blackstrap molasses.
And try to think beyond baked beans. Add a dollop of molasses to your morning coffee, or dissolve a spoonful into seltzer water for an impromptu tonic. Drizzle it over oatmeal or yogurt or pancakes.
Stir half a cup into your favorite barbecue-sauce recipe. Mix some with mustard for a glaze for grilled pork loin; the molasses caramelizes on the grill, creating a sweet and savory crust that matches well with honey-mustard-glazed roast potatoes and carrots.
For dessert lovers, of course, there are plenty of baked molasses options, ranging from bread to cookies to cake. All are perfect for serving on a crisp evening in late autumn — the time of year, after all, when scents and flavors turn rich, sweet, and dark.
Based in Eugene, Oregon, Jackie Varriano is a writer who loves tackling kitchen projects big and small. Keep up with her at SeeJackWrite.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
Want more? Comb the archives.
Flatbreads from around the continent
Eight Indian flatbreads to bake or fry at home.
Flatbreads from around the continent
Beyond a supporting role
The great Sicilian-Neapolitan kitchen rivalry
Five ideas each month for eating better