What Is Sorghum Syrup?

Savory-sweet sorghum syrup has a long history in the American South.

Published Dec. 6, 2022.

Many gingerbread recipes call for molasses, which is a dark syrup that is a by-product of the process of making sugar from sugarcane. 

Sorghum syrup, or sorghum molasses as it’s often called, is an elixir made directly from the process of extracting and then heating the juice from sorghum cane. It has a more complex and nuanced flavor than plain molasses, and it ratchets up the flavor profile of any recipe it’s added to—including our Gingerbread Snack Cake

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If you’re familiar with sorghum grain, we are talking about the same plant, but only specific varieties of the plant have a sugary juice that can be extracted to make the syrup. While sorghum grain was brought to the United States from Africa in the 1600s, these specific sorghum cane plants were imported in the 1800s to be cultivated as an alternative to cane sugar, since sorghum cane grows in temperate to colder climates. 

But while the syrup is delicious, unlike sugar syrup, it doesn’t crystallize well, and when beet sugar was discovered later in that century, the commercial processing of sorghum syrup was largely abandoned. Small farmers still grew and processed the syrup for their own use, though, particularly in the southern Appalachians where it is beloved for its rich flavor—umami with a “whang” to it.

Gingerbread Snack Cake

In Appalachia, gingerbread is a time-honored tradition.
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In the mountains, you can still find folks who might refer to what their family grew as sugarcane when it was, in fact, sorghum (sugarcane won’t thrive in mountain climates). While it used to be a product you could find only in groceries in certain regions, sorghum syrup is now available in many specialty food stores and by mail order from a number of producers. Two of my favorites that are reliably available by mail are Muddy Pond from Tennessee and Oberholtzer’s Kentucky Sorghum. 

Like wine, sorghum syrups are distinguished by the variety of cane, their terroir, and the techniques of the maker, so you may want to sample more than one. One of the best ways to fall in love with sorghum syrup is to use a fork to mix 2 tablespoons of it with 1 tablespoon of softened butter and then slather that on a warm biscuit: messily divine.

Ronni Lundy is the author of Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes (2016), which won two James Beard Awards for Cookbook of the Year and Best American Cooking. Ronni has been writing about the food, music, and people of the southern Appalachians for more than 40 years and is the proud owner of Plott Hound Books in Burnsville, North Carolina, amid the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.

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