Gluten-free, hearty, tasty and easy to grow: these are all reasons sorghum has become more prominent on the plate. Chefs and home cooks from around the world are enjoying this ancient grain, using it in dishes from grain bowls to pancakes to risotto. It has a traditional association with Southern cooking, and is a versatile cereal that's easy to use. Sorghum is available in a sweet syrup and can even be popped like popcorn.
What Is Sorghum?
Sorghum is a tasty ancient grain that's shaped like a little ball coated with an edible hull. It's versatile: sorghum can be broken down into flour for baking, boiled to make a side dish, and popped like popcorn. This ancient grain is touted as the fifth most important cereal crop grown and is eaten around the world. The sorghum plant has a natural drought tolerance, which means it can grow just about anywhere it's cultivated. It's also gluten-free, making it a great alternative to other grains. It's also used in a variety of ways that may surprise, such as feed for animals, fuel for machines.
In fact, sorghum has been a part of a balanced diet for a very long time. The first recorded use of sorghum originated over 8,000 years ago in Africa. Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt are the areas where researchers believe the grain was first harvested. Sorghum was imported to India during the first millennium BC, where it's still used to make dosa and a thick porridge eaten at any meal. The name sorghum comes from the East Indies word "sorgi," which first appeared in writing around 1542. Eventually, sorghum traveled to the United States on the trade ships in the 19th century.
Most production the United States happens in South Dakota, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, and Oklahoma. Sorghum is also a big crop in Australia, China, and South America.
How to Use Sorghum
Sorghum can be eaten and prepared like any other grain, though it does have some nuances other cereals don't possess. For one, sorghum can be popped like popcorn and eaten as a healthy snack or as a topping on a dessert, salad, or in a bowl of granola. It's more like wheat than most grains, but doesn’t have any gluten so works well as a substitute when baking or cooking gluten-free foods.
You can also soak and cook it to make a porridge, grain side dish, or as a stuffing for peppers. It's also good stirred into a soup or stew, thickening the broth and adding even more heft to this cold-weather dish. Overall, cooked sorghum pairs well with mushrooms, dark green vegetables, eggplant, tomatoes, red meat, roasted chicken, roasted carrots, and an array of herbs.
There's also something called sorghum syrup, or sorghum molasses, a sweetener found in the Southern part of the United States, where it's been made since the 1850s. It's created by milling the stalks of the plant in order to press out the liquid, which is boiled to create viscosity; this also gives it a brown color similar to maple syrup.
RELATED: Sweet Sorghum Syrup, a Southern Tradition
What Does Sorghum Taste Like?
The flavor of sorghum is mild with a trace of nutty sweetness to it, and a bit of an earthy undertone. There's also a nuance of fresh-churned earth that gives a bit of richness to the grain. Its texture is firm like a wheat berry, and cooked sorghum spheres can "pop" in the mouth when eating.
While sorghum is a unique ancient grain, it can be substituted for or instead of millet or wheat berry. This ingredient is a great addition to any hearty meal, especially when it needs to be gluten free. Try it as a side dish, in a casserole, soup or stew. Sorghum flour is also worth seeking out as an element in gluten-free baking.
Where to Buy Sorghum
The majority of sorghum found in the United States is used as animal feed, but that doesn't mean it can't be sourced for home cooking. Bob's Red Mill is a larger provider and shoppers can find it at most specialty grocers. Pick up sorghum in bulk from most shops that sport bins of loose grains. Finding sorghum syrup proves a bit more challenging, though if shopping in the South or online it's readily available.
Keep all dried sorghum grains in an airtight, sealed jar, bag or other container. It can last a long time this way as long as there is no moisture introduced. Popped sorghum won't last too long; about two weeks in a closed container. Other cooked sorghum will also last about two weeks in a sealed vessel as long as it's placed in the fridge. Sorghum does not have to be refrigerated after cooking if it's eaten that day.
With so many types of sorghum that get grown all over the world, it's hard to pinpoint which grain is on the plate. They all look similar, round with a reddish-brown hue and papery outer shell. In general, there are four types of sorghum: forage, biomass, sweet sorghum, and grain sorghum. Grain is what most consumers are eating. Sweet sorghum is used to make syrup, whiskey and rum. The other two kinds of sorghum are mostly for animal feed and biofuel.