Ingredient Spotlight: Molasses

Monday, January 13, 2014

Blackstrap molasses

Catherine Cioffi, RD Contributing Blogger

This dark syrup offers not only a uniquely sweet flavor, but also a variety of vitamins and minerals. It’s the key ingredient for beloved gingerbread recipes, and makes a great addition to your kitchen cabinet!

History
In the United States, molasses first appeared during colonial times when it started being imported from the West Indies as a part of the Triangular Trade.

At that time, molasses was important for two reasons. It was the most inexpensive sweetener, making it a common ingredient in many recipes—from baked goods to baked beans. More importantly, it could also be distilled to make rum.

The popularity of molasses continued until World War I, after which the price of refined sugar dropped. This led to a change in preference for white sugar, now the more commonly used sweetener.

To make molasses, the natural juice of sugar cane is boiled down into a hot liquid. When this liquid cools, a portion of the sugar will re-crystallize (become solid). This crystallized sugar is then removed—the remaining liquid is molasses.

The different types of molasses vary by the number of times they are boiled.

  • “Light molasses” (cane syrup) results from a first boiling process. It has the lightest color and flavor. It’s also the sweetest!
  • “Dark molasses” (second syrup) is boiled twice, which means additional sucrose (aka sugar) has been removed. It has a darker color, and more bittersweet flavor.
  • “Blackstrap” molasses undergoes a third boiling process. It’s the most concentrated variety, in color and flavor.

Molasses can also be “sulfured” or “unsulfured”, depending if sulfur dioxide (a preservative) has or hasn’t been added, respectively. Some folks are sensitive to the preservative, especially asthmatics. It may also alter the taste or color of the molasses.

Nutrition Facts
Although molasses and table sugar are made from the same ingredient (sugar cane), they still differ in certain ways nutritionally. Mainly, each time the molasses is boiled, its vitamin and mineral levels become more and more concentrated.

Blackstrap molasses has the highest levels of these nutrients, because it has been boiled down the longest—the most “bang for your buck” nutritionally. Just one tablespoon is a rich source of copper and manganese, providing 20% and 27% of our daily value (DV), respectively. It’s also a good source of calcium (18% DV) and potassium (15%), and contains small amounts of magnesium, vitamin B6, and selenium.

Just remember: these nutrients do come with calories: 1 tablespoon also provides about 60 calories. So be sure to use in moderation!

In the Kitchen
There are a few things to keep in mind when experimenting with molasses. First, it can be very sticky, so be careful when pouring (this is not the best task for a child).

Because of its strong flavor,it should be balanced out with an additional sweetener. For example, in my gingerbread cookies (recipe to come!), I’ve blended it with agave syrup and raw turbinado sugar.

In addition to gingerbread, molasses can also be used to make “shoofly pie”—a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch dessert—or savory dishes, such as barbecue marinades.

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