Allergic to bees and don’t have sugar maple trees, but still want to produce your own sweeteners? Try sweet sorghum syrup, a natural sugar substitute that can grow in most U.S. gardens.
I grew up helping my family make sweet sorghum syrup. I remember the sorghum canes growing in our garden, and the late summer day we harvested our crop. I loved the long day with family and friends, Dad readying the equipment, and Mom making sure everyone was fed. After Dad passed away, I became determined that my children would continue to play a part in producing this delicious, homegrown, natural sweetener. Sorghum-making is a way to increase your food self-sufficiency, but more than that, it’s a meaningful tradition you can add to your homestead.
A past call-out in MOTHER EARTH NEWS for sorghum-making stories led to a flow of memories, photos and recipes centered on sweet sorghum syrup. (I’ve shared many of these stories in my blog, A Modern Missouri Homesteader.) I’ve read about kids chewing on sticks of sweet cane, neighbors working together to send the cane through the mill, and loving parents ladling syrup onto a pan for kids to dip into with apples. The best part? These aren’t only old, nearly forgotten memories. I’m helping MOTHER EARTH NEWS lead a sorghum revival so that you, too, can experience the sweet satisfaction of becoming one step closer to food self-sufficiency.
Don't miss the plans for a DIY sorghum press, submitted by a reader as a follow-up to the original printing of this article. The reader's letter and instructions are available under Sorghum Press Plans (scroll to the bottom of the page).
Sorghum syrup is a 100 percent natural sweetener sometimes called “sorghum molasses,” as its flavor and uses are similar to those of molasses made from sugar cane. Sorghum-makers press sweet, green juice from the sorghum canes and cook the juice down into a finished syrup. Ten gallons of sorghum juice will make approximately 1 gallon of syrup.
When made at home, every batch of sorghum syrup turns out a little different because many variables play a part in the process. The variety of cane grown, the type of soil it’s grown in, the maturity of the cane at harvest, the length of cooking — all of these factors work together to turn out a unique, natural sugar substitute each time.
Check around for sorghum festivals in your area, and visit the website of the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association to get in touch with folks near where you live. For more detailed instructions on producing sweet sorghum syrup — beyond what you’ll find in this article — read our online selections from the book Sweet Sorghum Production and Processing from the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Sorghum Production: Milling and Cooking and Learn About Growing Sorghum: A Natural Sweetener.
Sweet sorghum grows as a cane from 6 to 10 feet tall and makes a cone-shaped seed head filled with BB-sized seeds. Sorghum seed must be planted, thinned and fertilized in late May to early June, after the ground is warm. Several seed varieties are available (see “Sweet Sorghum Varieties,” at the end of this article). ‘Sugar Drip’ is a favorite among sorghum-makers in my area of Missouri, myself included. Look for sweet sorghum producers in your hardiness zone to acquire seed acclimated to your area — most sorghum varieties mature in 100 to 120 days. After your first sorghum harvest, you’ll be able to save enough seed for future plantings.
You must thin sorghum plantings to 4 to 6 inches between plants in order to grow thick, tall canes. Fertilize and cultivate your sorghum planting as you would a crop of corn, though sorghum won’t require as much nitrogen. Sorghum is fairly drought-tolerant and grows quickly following a rain, so irrigation shouldn’t be necessary in most climates.
For a small crop that you can process into syrup in one day, you should plant six 100-foot rows of cane, spacing each row about 1 to 2 feet apart. You should plant about a quarter-pound of seed for the initial sowing, and then replant a few weeks later in areas of poor germination. A crop this size will yield approximately 40 to 50 gallons of juice, which will cook down to about 4 to 5 gallons of finished sorghum molasses. Comparatively, a smaller, 100-square-foot crop (two 50-foot rows) would produce about 6 gallons of juice and two-thirds gallon of syrup.
Sorghum canes grow throughout summer and form large seed heads that usually turn brick-red as they mature, typically in late summer or early fall. For most sorghum varieties, the maturity of the seed also marks the peak level of sugar content present in the juice. Cut a stalk every week during the last few weeks of maturity, strip away the cane and chew on the pith to taste the juice as its flavor changes from grassy to sweet.
When the canes are ready for harvest, call in friends and family — the harvest and processing steps will require extra hands on deck. Up to a week before your processing date, remove all of the leaves and seed heads from the canes, saving the seed heads for replanting. A few days before and up to the morning you plan to press, cut the cane to about 6 inches above the ground with a long-handled scythe, machete or pruning shears. Pile all of the canes facing the same direction, and transport these piles to your mill and processing site.
The craft of sorghum-making requires special equipment to press the juice from the canes. You can find vintage iron sorghum mills at farm sales or purchase new machines built following old designs. These are heavy and must be permanently mounted on a sturdy platform, but they can squeeze large amounts of sorghum quickly. These machines were traditionally powered by animal labor, but a small tractor or electric motor is now more common. You may want to look into making a group purchase, as these large mills are often expensive. To help us power the sorghum revival, our friends at GrainMaker are developing a smaller, hand-cranked mill that should be available in mid-2013. For more information on locating sorghum mills and the GrainMaker press, see “Equipment and More Info” at the end of this article.
When you press the canes, you’ll need to catch the flow of juice and strain it to keep out bits of stalk, pith and dirt. I use a large metal strainer placed on top of a larger colander, which is double-lined with cheesecloth. Collect the strained juice in a large vessel, such as a 5-gallon bucket.
To see images of Sherry and her family milling and processing sweet sorghum visit the Image Gallery.
You must cook the juice down to the final sorghum syrup. This requires a large pan (evaporator) and a heat source, typically a wood fire. You’ll need a shallow, rectangular pan that accommodates the amount of juice the batch begins with but that won’t let the syrup spread too thin as it cooks down, causing it to scorch. For example, we use a stainless steel pan that’s 6 feet long and 3 feet wide with 6-inch-high sides. This pan holds up to 50 gallons and can cook as few as 30 gallons without scorching the syrup. A pan about 2 to 3 feet long and 1 to 2 feet wide would work well for cooking down 10 gallons of juice.
A fire pit is the typical heat source for small-scale sorghum syrup production. Your pit should be surrounded on three sides with cinder blocks (stacked two-high works well) to support the pan and hold it level over the fire. Leave one narrow end of the pit open for adding firewood, and build out the opposite end with cinder blocks for a stovepipe large enough to ensure a good draw for the fire. We use a 12-inch-diameter, 6-foot-tall stovepipe.
As you start squeezing the canes, build a fire in the pit. You can begin cooking after you’ve pressed at least half of your canes. Place the clean pan over the fire and immediately pour the juice in, adding the remaining juice to the pan as you press. Use a skimmer to lift off the green foam that floats to the surface throughout the day, which must be removed to ensure a clean, flavorful syrup. I feed this byproduct to our pigs, along with the spent sorghum canes — they wallow in, sleep on and eat them with relish.
Eventually, less scum and more brown bubbles will appear — a signal that you are nearly done cooking. You must decide when the syrup is finished based on thickness and taste, which is a learning process. Be especially careful not to undercook or underskim, as these can ruin a batch more than anything else. Undercooking can cause it to develop mold, and leaving the “green” foam can make the syrup go rancid. It shouldn’t taste as raw as it does when it’s first squeezed from the stalk, and it should be thick like corn syrup (the hot syrup will be thinner than the final product). Watch the temperature of the sorghum using a candy thermometer to help identify when the sorghum syrup is nearly done, around 225 to 235 degrees Fahrenheit.
When the syrup is complete, the pan needs to be transferred from the heat to a heat-safe surface. Immediately ladle the sorghum syrup into sterilized jars and screw on clean lids.
At the end of a day of sorghum-making, the pan has been licked clean, rinsed out and set to rest against a nearby tree. The fire is built higher, kids are playing hide-and-seek, the stars are coming out, and laughter fills the air. Everyone gathers around the flames to discuss how this batch was different from last year’s syrup, when we’ll see frost, and when we’ll have our first hard freeze. The final summer party of the year is coming to a close, replaced with dreams of baked sweet potatoes and hot biscuits smothered with butter and drizzled with sorghum syrup. Bring on the cold — we’re ready.
Read more: Find more step-by-step details from the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s guidebook Sweet Sorghum Production and Processing on Sorghum Production: Milling and Cooking and Learn About Growing Sorghum: A Natural Sweetener.
Shorter season: ‘Della,’ ‘Rox Orange’ (aka ‘Waconia’), ‘Sugar Drip’
Longer season: ‘Dale,’ ‘M81E,’ ‘White African’
As sweeteners go, sorghum syrup is a vitamin and mineral powerhouse that makes a splendid natural sugar alternative. Similar to sugar cane molasses in flavor and use, sweet sorghum syrup contains healthy doses of calcium, potassium, magnesium and iron. Drizzle sorghum syrup on warm biscuits or pancakes, add to muffin or gingerbread batters, or follow these recipes:
If you have sorghum recipes to share, send them to Letters@MotherEarthNews.com.
Muddy Pond Sorghum Mill
Offers new mills in old and new designs for both small and large operations.
Developing a new mill design for hand-crank sorghum processing. Best for small operations.
National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association
Provides useful information and services to sorghum producers, including an events calendar.
Sherry Leverich Tucker is inspired and fascinated by country skills — especially sorghum-making, market gardening and hog-raising. Send her your sorghum-making memories and recipes and she will post them on her blog, A Modern Missouri Homesteader.