The Art of Cooking Sorghum Syrup

Long cherished in the South, sorghum has recently been rediscovered by progressive chefs across the nation.

| June 2015

An ancient Old World grass that resembles corn, sorghum is cultivated and used as a grain in most of the world. It has been a key ingredient in Southern baked goods, confections, glazes, and dressings since before the Civil War. Though essential to the region, sorghum’s complex flavors and deep heritage have often gone unsung. Throughout Sorghum’s Savor (University Press of Florida, 2015), author Ronni Lundy weaves rich stories and descriptions from her Kentucky childhood and her many years invested in the mountain foodways community.

As I write, I have seven jars of sweet sorghum syrup on my counter from different producers in Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia. They range in color from tawny gold to a deep teak brown. One small jar of the Sugar Drip variety came crystallized, while the others have viscosities ranging from maple syrup quick to, well, slow as molasses in wintertime. Each one tastes and smells somewhat different from the other, including the two jars that are from the same farm, same crop, same year, but one was processed over steam and the other over wood fire.

Loving sorghum syrup is a lot like loving great wine: you learn to savor impermanence and variability.

Chefs like Edward Lee and Ouita Michel say that’s part of the pleasure of cooking with sorghum. “I love the Zen of it,” Ouita laughs. “You mean you never cook with the same sorghum twice?” I ask. “That’s part of the beauty,” she affirms.

The differences in tastes are subtle ones, and not so great that you can’t use any pure sweet sorghum syrup for another in the recipes here. But as you get accustomed to its basic flavor, some subtle element (a grassy substrata, a more pronounced mineral or buttery note) in a new sorghum may suggest a new way to pair it, a new recipe to try.

All sorghum syrup has what my mother would have called “a whang to it.” That’s the slightly sour taste that cozies up perfectly with the intense sweet of sorghum when it first hits the mouth. It resolves into a buttery resonance, what chefs like to call sorghum’s umami, which fills the mouth in a way that no other syrup—honey, corn, maple—can.

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