In the 1500s through the 1900s, starting from the time that Christopher Columbus first planted Saccharum officinarum on the island which currently is Haiti/The Dominican Republic, sugar cane was cultivated in the Americas and the Caribbean. It turns out that the tropical climate in the West Indies suits sugar cane perfectly. It was prized for the sweet flavor, for sure, but also for its by-product, Molasses. From Molasses you can get rum by fermenting the left-over sticky brown syrup, and rum and Molasses became huge export products of the Caribbean.
You can crush any plant and extract juice, but some plants are better at storing their carbohydrates as sugars than others. Sweet corn really is sweet, and corn and many other plants yield a sweet syrup when crushed or tapped. Think of agave nectar, sweet sorghum syrup, maple syrup, birch syrup, hickory syrup, palm syrup and date sugar, in addition to those products obtained by crushing, pressing or squeezing sugar cane, S. officinarum.
Sugar was initially used as a spice, somewhat the way sugar is still used in Chinese food. Throughout history we've been eating more and more until today Americans consume 156 pounds a year per capita (according to John Casey at WebMD.net. Of course, the sugar lobby disagrees with the figure, but whatever the correct number is, we're undoubtedly eating more sugar than we did in our grandparents' time. But until the 20th century, Molasses was a more economical choice than white sugar. White sugar only became available for everyday use in the last century.
Molasses has a deep rich flavor I love, which combines well with warm spices like cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and especially ginger. Locally produced Molasses from southern U.S. states is not true Molasses from sugar cane juice.
Baking with Molasses usually requires the addition of baking soda, instead of or in addition to baking powder. With the addition on Molasses, the finished baked good will be flavorful and moister than if you used sugar alone. Molasses is famous for Molasses cookies, gingerbread, Boston brown bread, baked beans and barbecue sauce. It adds a pleasant, dark color and a deep, complex and warm flavor to baked goods.
Sulfur is added as a preservative to unripe cane Molasses, but mature darker Molasses doesn't need it. Trust me; you don't need it either. Molasses should be all natural just the way it is. It shouldn't need preservatives or adulterations. Malt Products Corporation carries Molasses in bulk (by the barrel or ton), if you should happen to need more than you can get at your local groccery store.
Refining sugar has three stages at which brown, sticky syrup is poured off. The first stage produces a very light, very sweet golden treacle or light Molasses, the second yields a more robust dark or baking Molasses or dark treacle and the third and final stage produces black treacle or blackstrap Molasses.
Blackstrap Molasses is less sweet, has a higher proportion of vitamins and minerals (which, of course, are non-existant in refined sugar) but it still doesn't mean you should start chugging blackstrap Molasses. In the 1970s people started claiming that blackstrap Molasses was a valuable food additive, and similar claims persist to the present. I don't know that any of them have ever been scientifically tested. Molasses contains valuable minerals like copper, manganese and iron. But you would have to drink a 8 ounce serving of Molasses to meet your daily requirement for iron, for instance, when you could instead select from delicious and healthful options like eggs, spinach or sweet potatoes.
If you are interested in the history of rums, sugar and the Caribbean, I found this link to be extremely interesting, although I couldn't quite work out how to include it in an article about Molasses.
Treacle: If you are in the United Kingdom, the product which you call "treacle" is extremely similar to our molasses. Someone explained that all Molasses is treacle but not all treacle is Molasses. Alice speaks of treacle tarts In Alice in Wonderland and I know we Americans have wondered about it. Treacle tarts are like pecan pie without pecans. "Dark treacle" is analogous to our dark Molasses or blackstrap Molasses and "Light treacle" is more like what we call corn syrup or "light Molasses." I got my information about treacle from this website I don't know anything about treacle otherwise. (True disclosure time.)
Maple syrup, sorghum syrup, corn syrup and hickory syrup are all products associated with specific plants. Molasses, however, can be extracted from sugar beets, sugar cane or even grapes, although most comes from sugar cane. The stuff we Americans use to make holiday treats is ALL extracted from sugar cane; the stuff they get from sugar beets is used as a feed amendment.
So now that you have your unsulphured blackstrap molasses, what do you do with it? You can add it to pumpkin pie, pecan pie and/or barbecue sauce, or Molasses cookies (yum). Molasses to me is a natural partner to anything containg ginger. Try adding a little molasses to your favorite recipes.
TIP: if anything in the recipe is greasy or oily (even butter), use a bit of the oil to grease the measuring cup so the molasses (or other sticky stuff) will slide right out after measuring.
Photo courtesy of Badagnani
other Dave's Garden articles you may find relevant:
From sugar-cane to cane sugar