Molasses is one of those ingredients that signals cooler weather. It has a deep, rich flavor that’s as sweet as sugar but doesn’t leave you feeling quite as hyped up. We love using it in our coziest baking recipes, like ginger cookies or dessert cobblers, but it’s also great in savory recipes like glazed ham or baked beans. Dozens of recipes taste better with a drizzle of molasses, but this thick syrup varies in flavor, and some types are more intense than others. Let’s break it down.
First thing’s first: What is molasses?
Molasses is a byproduct of the sugar-making process. It all starts with crushing sugar cane to access the sweet juices inside. That juice is boiled until sugar crystals form—that’s the sugar we’ve all come to know and love. The thick syrup that’s left behind is molasses. The boiling process can be repeated multiple times, creating the different varieties of molasses. Each time the process is repeated, the molasses loses sugar content and gets darker and more earthy flavored.
Sulfured vs. unsulfured molasses
The best sugar cane is sun-ripened, allowing the sugars to come forward naturally. Molasses made from ripe sugar cane is called unsulfured molasses because it has no additives. If green, unripe sugarcane is used, it is treated with sulfur dioxide first to preserve it. It can leave a chemical taste in the mouth, so we recommend looking for unsulfured molasses whenever possible.
Types of molasses
When should you use dark molasses and when is blackstrap molasses better suited? Let’s break down the most common types of molasses so you can shop—and cook—with confidence. Also, if you were curious, this is the difference between light and dark brown sugar.
After the first processing of sugar, you’re left with light molasses: The sweetest and lightest-colored type in the group. It’s the most popular type of molasses sold in the United States because it has the highest sugar content. It has a mild flavor and can be used as a substitute for maple syrup on pancakes, sugar in coffee or bake with it to make your favorite molasses cookie recipe.
If the molasses is boiled a second time, you end up with dark molasses. It’s darker and thicker the light variety, with a deeper, richer flavor that hints at bitterness. It’s not quite as sweet, but it’s also not as bitter as blackstrap molasses. It’s a good option for people looking for a sweetener with reduced sugar content, and it makes an incredible gingerbread.
The third and last boiling of molasses results in the deepest, darkest, most bitter version of molasses: blackstrap molasses. It’s sometimes referred to as the healthiest molasses because it contains a ton of vitamins and minerals, including iron, manganese, copper, calcium and potassium. It also has a lower glycemic value because most of the sugar was extracted during the triple processing. It’s strong and bitter, but it’s great for savory cooking like baked beans.
Bead molasses is hard to find, but it’s an essential ingredient in chop suey and other Asian dishes. It’s made from the scrapings off the bottom of the pan used to boil molasses and has a similar flavor to light molasses.
Technically, sorghum molasses isn’t really molasses because it doesn’t start with sugar cane. The stalk of the sorghum plant is crushed and boiled—just like with molasses. It tends to be lighter and thinner than regular molasses, but it’s intensely sweet with a hint of sourness. Give it a try in your favorite recipe, or use it as a drizzle to top biscuits, cornbread or desserts.
This is another one that’s not technically molasses: Pomegranate molasses is made from boiled pomegranate juice. It tastes more like real balsamic vinegar than molasses, with a tangy edge and a complex flavor. It’s not a good substitute for baking recipes, but it makes incredible marinades and dressings. Try adding these other secret pantry ingredients that make your recipes better to your food the next time you cook.