Sweet Sorghum Syrup, a Southern Tradition

Shoo-fly Pie with sorghum syrup
Diana Rattray

Sorghum is a cereal grass with broad corn-like leaves and large clusters of grain atop tall stalks. It is believed that sorghum originated in Africa, where it is an important food grain and an ingredient in beer. Worldwide, it's the third-largest food grain. In the U.S., most of the sorghum grown goes to animal feed, some to ethanol production and a relatively small portion is used to make the liquid sweetener.

Sorghum Syrup

Sorghum syrup -- sometimes called sorghum molasses -- has long been a favorite sweetener in the South, and it was particularly popular during the 1800s and early 1900s. Around the end of World War I, refined sugar products became more readily available and less expensive, thus causing a decline in the use of sorghum as a sweetener. Still, many Southerners have fond memories of sorghum drizzled over their biscuits, pancakes, and cornbread.

To make a hot sorghum syrup, heat 1/2 cup of pure sorghum syrup in a skillet over medium heat. Sprinkle with 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda; stir and simmer until foamy and thickened. Serve over biscuits, pancakes, or waffles.

To produce the syrup, the cane is pressed to extract the juice then boiled down and evaporated to create a rich, golden syrup. In the fall of the year, you're likely to find sorghum-making demonstrations and freshly bottled pure sorghum syrup in many areas of the South.

Sorghum Syrup and Sacramento

Sorghum syrup is still produced, not only to preserve the tradition but because it is such a great favorite of Southerners. Writer of the Sacramento Bee, Kentucky chef Edward Lee, offers this elegant description of the flavor. "The first thing I get is this very rustic nuttiness, this umami nuttiness, then the grassiness," he says. "And then the sweetness unfolds around that. It’s a unique flavor. And it adds a lot of depth to what you’re cooking, more so than honey."

Use sorghum to top biscuits, cornbread, pancakes, or desserts, or add it to just about any recipe calling for molasses or honey. It also has a higher nutritional value than many of the other sweeteners.

Where to Get Some

You'll even find the gluten-free sorghum grain on grocery store shelves these days. It's similar in texture to wheat berries, and it can be used to make pilaf or salads. Use it as an alternative to noodles or rice in soups. You can even pop it in the microwave like popcorn! ​Slow cooker chicken and sorghum grain soup is a good example of the versatility of the grain.

Sorghum is a natural sweetener and, like honey or molasses, it does not require refrigeration. If you do store it in the refrigerator, take it out and let it stand at room temperature for 20 minutes so it will flow more freely. Use it in glazed carrots or beets in place of molasses or honey or replace the molasses in your molasses cookies or gingerbread with sorghum syrup.

If you can't find sorghum molasses in your area, it is available online.