Molasses is an ingredient that the home cook may not use that often but is an important part of certain recipes, such as barbecue sauce, gingerbread cookies, and baked beans. This sweetener is actually a byproduct of making sugar from sugarcane or sugar beets; the process goes through three boiling cycles and with each cycle a different type of molasses is created.
There are five types of molasses: blackstrap, light, dark (or medium), treacle, and sorghum (which is technically not a molasses). All varieties can contain sulphur depending on the specific refining process used, but unsulphured products, which are lighter in color and smoother in flavor, are available. The lighter the molasses, the sweeter it is.
This version of molasses is the syrup that remains after the first processing of the sugar. It is generally unsulphured and is the lightest as well as sweetest variety. Light molasses is, as you might guess, light in color; it is also mild or sweet because only a small percentage of the sugar has been extracted. This type of molasses is often used as a syrup for pancakes and waffles or is stirred into hot cereals such as oatmeal. It consists of 65 percent sucrose.
Medium or Dark Molasses
After the second boiling of the sugar, medium (or dark) molasses is made. It has a little stronger flavor than light molasses, but not as strong as blackstrap. Dark molasses is, naturally, darker in color, less sweet with a hint of bitterness, and has a thicker consistency. It is the type commonly used in gingerbread. This type of molasses has about 60 percent sucrose.
The syrup remaining after the third extraction of sugar from sugar cane is blackstrap molasses. The word blackstrap (derived in part from the Dutch word stroop, meaning syrup) refers to the color of the molasses, which is extremely dark. It has a very strong, somewhat bittersweet flavor with a heady aroma. This variety is best used in recipes rather than as a straight sweetener such as pancake syrup. It contains many of the nutrients left behind by refined sugar crystals. By measure, it is 55 percent sucrose, the least sweet of the varieties.
True treacle dates back to Victorian times. The pale, refined molasses is notably sweeter and has a much more mellow flavor than molasses. Nowadays, treacle is a blend of molasses and refinery syrup. It ranges in color from light gold to nearly black. British treacle can be substituted for molasses in most recipes, but much less frequently will molasses work as a replacement for treacle. If you do substitute molasses for treacle, use the lightest, unsulphured molasses you can find.
Technically, sorghum is not molasses. It comes from the sorghum plant, a cereal grain which although grown specifically for molasses, it is not refined sugar. Sorghum is also referred to as unsulphured, West Indies, or Barbados molasses. The syrup is made from the juice of the stalk which is cooked and clarified. The result is smooth with a clear amber color, free of sediment or graininess. Although it contains no sulphur, sorghum molasses generally does contain a preservative which is added to lengthen its short shelf life. When substituting for other sweeteners, use 1/2 to 3/4 of the sweetener amount called for in the recipe. Since it can ferment, sorghum molasses should be kept refrigerated unless you go through it fairly quickly. This variety has 65 to 70 percent sucrose.