Friday, June 13, 2014

Cooking sorghum--"there's a sleight to it"

Is there a special treat you associate with your grandmother?  For me, the special treat at Granny's house was a homemade biscuit (cooked in a woodstove) with sorghum molasses poured into the middle, the more, the better.  We just called it syrup or molasses.  "Granny, can I have a syrupy biscuit?"
I want to say Grandpa had cooking sorghum down to a science, but maybe I should say down to an art.  As a man whom my brother worked with years and years ago was wont to say, "there's a sleight to it."
Maybe experience was the best teacher, but experience had a talented man to work with in my Grandpa. 
About 13 years ago, I took my son and his friend on a field trip to see my aunt carrying on the tradition of cooking sorghum.
The first step is to cut the sorghum cane from the field.

Grandpa had made his own dedicated tool for this.  We call it a cane cutter.
Then the cane is unloaded and stacked where someone will strip the leaves from the stalk.  Shucking fodder we called it because the leaves could be fed to the cows.  Here are my grandparents shucking fodder.  There is a big barrel in the background which was used to collect the juice.
You can see my uncle in the background unloading the cane while my son and his friend take a taste of the raw cane piths.
Once the fodder has been stripped the seed heads are cut off. The seeds can be mixed in with cow feed.  Some seeds are saved to plant the following year.
In this picture you can see the piles of cane ready to be processed.  A couple of pieces of railroad track made a convenient place to stack the cane.  You can see a bridge in the background.  Grandpa had his cooking shed in the shade by the creek.  In the foreground you see the belt which goes from the tractor to the mill which crushes or "squeezes" the juice out of the cane.  It takes a lot of pressure to crush the cane stalks.  There is really not an efficient way to do it by hand.  Before tractors, folks would use mule power.  In some primitive cultures, men use a log to crush the juice out of sugar cane, but I wonder if they expend more calories than the end product provides.
After the cane is squeezed, the juice is strained and cooked.  Grandpa used the continuous flow method which entailed moving the juice through a maze in a huge shallow pan which sat atop a long, rectangular, wood-fired oven built of brick.
Last fall my brother and a colleague tried their hand at the process.  They used a lawn-mower-powered mill to squeeze the cane like the process seen HERE.
My son had grown quite a bit from his first field trip, but he still cut a piece of cane pith to chew on just like he did when he was a kid.
Here is the steam rising off the green juice in my brother's large open pan.  At this point it doesn't look particularly appetizing to me.  But it has a distinctive smell as it cooks that takes me back in time.
Here you can see the corner of the pan and the open end of the oven which is covered with a piece of metal.  The holes in the corners of the stainless steel pan accomodate staves which are used to lift the pan off the oven when the cooking is complete.  Grandpa's method did not require moving the pan; he just drew the cooked molasses into a container at the far end of the pan.  My brother has a dipper of the syrup to pour into the refractometer to test the sweetness.  That's one of them thar newfangled contraptions that Grandpa might not have even known existed.

Refractometers have all sorts of applications.  My brother's friend who is a nurse was familiar with the ones for testing the specific gravity of patient urine.  She always got the willies when she saw my brother doing a molasses taste test after taking the reading on the refractometer.
In this picture you can also see the custom made wooden paddle (poplar) lying flat across the pan (just under the dipper).  The paddle is used for the frequent stirring that is necessary in cooking the molasses.
My generous older brother gave me a jar from one of the batches.  I did not think it was up to par.  It was too green in color and flavor and too thick in consistency.  Mama said she liked the flavor after the syrup has aged a little.  My brother cooked a few more batches.  He gave Mama and Daddy some from one of the later batches.  When I saw it at Mama's and remarked on how good it was, she shared some with me.  Now this is right!  Golden brown, heady malty aroma, sweet and pourable.

 With real butter of course.  Yum.
There's just nothing like sorghum molasses.




  1. Now you have done it. One of our most treasured finds is GOOD MOLASSES. Just the right color and just the right sweetness. There is a place in Georgia, about 20 miles south of Cleveland, TN, were we found Sand Hill molasses that fill the bill.
    You were blessed to have a Grandpa/Grandma who 'Knew the slight of it.'

    I was 5 yrs old when introduced to cooking Molasses. Dad pastored High Shoals, NC, a country church then. Closest neighbors and my play mates were 'Colored'. At the time that was a respected term. I got to ride the mule as it went in circles turning the press.
    You sure brought back some memories of a little white kid.
    Sweet that you can pass this on the Caleb. VERY interesting I did not know the process, just squeezing and cooking.
    Good stuff.

  2. Can we grow the canes here in central nc?

  3. Awe, what a fun sweet post! I still remember that day like it was yesterday!