Long cherished in the South, sorghum has recently been rediscovered by progressive chefs across the nation.
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.
That umami quality allows sorghum syrup to harmonize with a vast range of foods. Sweet sorghum is the Emmylou Harris of ingredients.
The recipes that follow will show you just how that works. Meanwhile, here are some tips on using sorghum in your kitchen.
Like honey, sorghum syrup will not spoil at room temperature and so doesn’t need to be refrigerated after opening. In fact, refrigeration can hasten crystallization, and it makes sorghum too thick to pour, so don’t do it.
Unlike honey, sorghum that occasionally crystallizes doesn’t always decrystallize when you gently heat it by placing the jar in warm water or microwave. The fact that sorghum has been heated already may be why. My experience, and that of several chefs I spoke with, is that sometimes sorghum that has crystallized will dissolve to liquid when you place the jar in a pan of warm water and slowly raise the heat some, but without boiling. Other times it doesn’t. In that case, crystallized sorghum is perfect to use when you’re making a brine or marinade, or to spoon into coffee, or to make the Splendid Chai recipe. Any place where the heat, liquidity, or acidity of the substance you are adding it to will melt the crystals is fair game. And the really good news is that sorghum syrup doesn’t crystallize that readily in the first place.
Sorghum will keep well over a year, sometimes more, in a tightly covered jar. If you want to “freshen” older sorghum, heat the syrup gently in a heavy skillet (don’t overfill) until it just begins to boil. Add a pinch of baking soda and quickly skim off the foam that rises. Both Rona Roberts and Fred Sauceman advise eating that foam, as it is delicious. And the syrup now tastes as fresh as the day it was first boiled.
Sorghum is generally sold in Mason jars or plastic jugs. The jugs allow for ease of pouring, the least messy and most accurate way of measuring sorghum into a cup or spoon. But the glass jars let you see how much and the condition of your sorghum. And jars are easier to dip a spoon into for a dollop for your biscuit or cornbread, or to use a rubber spatula to get that last good drop out. I tend to prefer the jars and was delighted to discover that there are now several types of screw-on jar lids with built-in pouring spouts available online or in specialty cooking stores. Look for one with a wide spout to accommodate sorghum syrup’s thickness. (Don’t buy one with that flip-top pour slot like the ones on boxes of salt. It’ll be stuck to the jar top and impossible to open in no time.)
One of the best kitchen tips I received came from Chef Jay Pierce, who said that whenever he opens a jar of sorghum to use in a recipe, he makes sure to have on hand a clean cloth dampened with warm water. He wipes the rim and lid after each pour or dip to ensure no syrup residue is left to stick and harden and make it nearly impossible to open the jar again. After closing the lid, he uses the cloth to wipe down the outside of the jar, too, top to bottom. Otherwise the jar may end up sitting in a sticky scrim.
Jay also recommends having hot water on hand to warm a cup or spoon that you plan to measure in. That does seem to make the sorghum come out a little more easily and thoroughly, but I keep an assortment of very small rubber spatulas to do the same job.
You’ll notice that some of the recipes include a step in which sorghum syrup is dissolved in a warm liquid ingredient before being incorporated into the whole. This isn’t always vitally necessary, but it does make it a little easier and ensures a more thorough combining of ingredients than simply plopping the sorghum in.
Keeping sorghum visible on my counter is a reminder that a drizzle of such is often a perfect finisher, particularly to grilled or fried meat and grilled or roasted vegetables. The sorghum can stand alone or be augmented with a squirt of citrus juice, a splash of vinegar, or a dusting of red chile or freshly cracked black pepper.
Reprinted with permission from Sorghum’s Savor by Ronni Lundy and published by University Press of Florida, 2015.