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What is molasses?

Molasses bottles
Molasses is a byproduct of the process of refining sugar cane into sugar. It is a thick syrup, dark in color, with a very strong sweet and somewhat bitter flavor. It is frequently used in baking and it is particularly popular in recipes for spice cookies and cakes, where it adds a lot of brown sugar flavor without making a recipe too sweet. Like honey, molasses attracts moisture and recipes that use it will tend to stay more moist for longer periods of time. This is an especially great feature for spice cookies and cakes, where the flavors of the spices will develop more over time when a recipe can be prepared a day or two in advance.

When sugar cane is processed into sugar, the sugar cane is pressed to extract all of the sugar-juice from the plants and this syrup is boiled to promote the formation of sugar crystals. There are three types of molasses – light, dark and blackstrap – and the boiled liquid from the first press of sugar cane is light molasses. It is sweeter and less dark in color than the other two. Dark molasses is formed when the boiled sugar cane juice is boiled again. Blackstrap molasses is the result of the third, and final, boiling of the sugar cane juice. It is the thickest, darkest and least sweet molasses. Molasses can be sulphured or unsulphured, as sulphur was often added to molasses as a preservative in the past, as well as to kill unwanted bacteria and to help whiten the resulting sugar crystals, although it is uncommon now.

Most molasses used in baking is unsulphured, light molasses – even if the labels don’t specifically say (like the molasses above). Dark molasses and blackstrap molasses are usually labeled as such, or are described as “robust” to emphasize the fact that they have a stronger flavor. The three are interchangeable in baking, although most recipes that call for molasses (unless otherwise specified) assume that you will be using the sweeter, milder light molasses. Feel free to experiment with other molasses varieties in your baking and cooking if you’re looking for a darker flavor. If you’re looking for an even lighter flavor, maple syrup and agave syrup can often be substituted for part of the molasses called for, as well.

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  • rainey
    December 28, 2010

    Sorry. I’m not quite getting it.

    Are you saying that the conventional molasses on the left in the photo illustration is the light molasses? Or is light something more akin to what the British call golden syrup (also a cane syrup but much, much lighter than molasses and lacking the bitterness)?

    I’ve always been confused by what blackstrap molasses is and whether it was interchangeable with the stuff simply labelled molasses. Thanks for this entry.

  • Nicole
    December 28, 2010

    Rainey – Yep, you’ve got it. Original/regular molasses is “light” molasses. Golden syrup is an entirely different product, an inverted sugar syrup. Maybe that would warrant another post! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_syrup

  • JB
    December 29, 2010

    I’m in the UK and I’ve never seen molasses on the supermarket shelves. What we do have (next to the golden syrup!) is treacle, which is the same colour as what you’ve shown here. Is it one and the same thing? Also, I’d be interested to know if there is a substitute for corn syrup because that’s something else we don’t have in the UK, unless it goes by a different name – thanks!

  • Nicole
    December 29, 2010

    JB – You can substitute treacle (dark treacle, if you have it) for molasses in a recipe. In most recipes, golden syrup can stand in for corn syrup. I’ve also used agave syrup and honey (although honey is rather sweeter tasting) in recipes that call for corn syrup. If you’re making candy, as opposed to some kind of baked good, you’ll want to use something like liquid glucose.

  • rainey
    December 31, 2010

    Thanks. I guess sometimes “light” is a relative term. ;>

    Do do something about cane syrup in the future. It’s an interesting product.

    I get it at Cost Plus or brewing supply houses. Don’t know what they do with it in conjunction with brewing but I think it’s a nice sweetener for bread dough and it makes it easy to use British and some Canadian recipes. I also substitute it for honey since I’m not crazy about the flavor of honey and corn syrup as well.

    BTW, I’m finding it more in plastic bottles which are ever so much easier to use than the tins. They were so hard to close up and keep clean after you had poured the syrup over the rim.

  • TiV
    January 17, 2011

    Hi! In our country it is very difficult to find molasses syrup/liquid. Couple of years ago I found one bottle and used it to bake wonderful molasses cookies. After that I have found molasses only in “sugar form” that is is a package where the molasses has become quite hard. Do you have any tips how I can use this molasses in the cookie recipe which requires 1/4 cup of molasses in liquid form….The taste of the cookies was GREAT and I guess molasses played a big role in it.
    Thank you!

  • JK
    January 5, 2013

    I have found a product call Billington’s Molasses http://bit.ly/13biWMQ

    This is a very soft dark crystal rather than a syrup. How does this compare with the liquid molasses products? My interest is in brewing and fermenting, so how do I rate the fermentable vs non fermentable sugars in all these products generically referred to as “molasses”?

  • angie
    January 17, 2013

    i would like to ask how to make a batter for porkchop or fish fillet that is crunchy in texture when you deep fry it


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