Baking with Molasses: the darker side of sweet

Sift magazine’s holiday issue is full of festive recipes for this season’s baking.

Sift magazine often includes a feature called “ingredient spotlight.” That’s where we take one of our favorite baking ingredients and use it in a collection of recipes that really shows what it can do. This time, we’re exploring the rich, robust flavor of molasses. Come with us as we taste some of the ways it can really amp up your baking.

Molasses runs through our history and the evolution of our baked goods. In colonial times, it was commonly used in tandem with honey as a principle sweetener. Refined sugars were too expensive for most households, so baking with molasses became the norm, appearing in staples like anadama and brown breads, baked beans, and gingerbread. As a result, we’re left with a national memory of its flavor.

baking with molasses spoon via@kingarthurflour

Traditions have changed quite a bit since then, but molasses, with its caramel notes and slightly bitter undertone, still claims a place in our cooking. It anchors the spices in barbecue sauces, brings its complexity to frostings and cakes, and is also delicious drizzled over cornbread. Despite the rise of other sweeteners, when we encounter a molasses cookie, it’s like meeting an old friend.

Baking with molasses is rich and satisfying. Check out 5 recipes from the darker side of sweet. Click To Tweet

How it’s made: Cane syrup, light molasses

Cane syrup is the boiled syrup of crushed sugar cane. Light molasses is the liquid that remains after the first white sugar is extracted from cane juice. The flavor is lighter and has more fruity notes to it, in the same way the first pressing of olives makes a lighter, fruitier olive oil. Light (sometimes called “fancy”) molasses is ideal for baked goods and candies. And in…

baking with molasses hermits via@kingarthurflour

Hermits

This frosted, spicy, fruit-studded cookie from childhood — substantial in size and deeply comforting — is worthy of a place in your lunch box and your baking routine.

baking with molasses soft cookie via@kingarthurflour

Whole Grain Soft Molasses Cookies

Slightly chewy and spiked with bits of candied ginger and spices, these praise-worthy soft cookies were born of King Arthur Flour employee-owner Julie Christopher’s late-night cookie making improvisation.

How it’s made: Dark and blackstrap molasses

Dark molasses is made from the second boiling of cane syrup, after the white sugar is removed. This thicker, darker version is often referred to as “full” or “robust” molasses. It gives gingerbread its distinctive flavor and can be used interchangeably with light molasses in baking, for those who prefer a stronger flavor.

Blackstrap molasses is the result of a third boil. It’s darker, more viscous, stronger-tasting, and less sweet than dark molasses. Because of this, its bitter flavor is best suited for savory preparations, such as baked beans or barbecue sauce, rather than for sweets. It tastes great in…

baking with molasses-1

Broonie

Another unexpected use of molasses is in this quick bread. This moist, tweedy loaf is descended from traditional Scottish oatmeal gingerbread. It’s equally delicious with a scoop of ice cream or simply paired with jam and some yogurt for breakfast.

baking with molasses seafoam via@kingarthurflour

Molasses Seafoam Candy

Crisp and light, this candy is also known by other names, including honeycomb, angel candy, sponge toffee, and cinder toffee. Seafoam is best made on a dry day. It can be broken into pieces once set, and dipped in chocolate for even more fun.

How it’s made: Cooking molasses

This is a blend of light and blackstrap molasses. It imparts a stronger molasses flavor without the harsh edge of straight blackstrap. Because of this balance, it’s a good middle-ground choice for any recipe, savory or sweet, such as in…

baking with molasses pound cake via@kingarthurflour

Molasses Pound Cake

Finally, we capture molasses’ magic for dessert. Top this moist cake with a dollop of good peach preserves and some whipped cream, or spread it with cream cheese for a quick breakfast.

Molasses is a compelling flavor that really stands out in baking. It’s particularly suited to cold weather treats. Bring the richness of molasses into your kitchen, and rediscover the darker side of sweet.

Susan Reid
About

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.

comments

  1. Irene from T.O.

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for the explanation.

    I go out of my way to buy one specific brand of brown sugar that has cane syrup not molasses added. Makes all the difference in the world in cookies.

    I recently found another brand that has this deep rich molasses taste for dark pound cakes soaked in rum. WOW. Like night and day.

    Reply
  2. Cindy

    I had no idea so many products came from sugar cane. I usually make my own brown sugar with molasses so will have to find some cane syrup and do some experimenting. Thanks for tip on this different type of brown sugar, Irene!

    Reply
  3. Wolf

    Thank toubfor an in-depth on molasses. I tend to favor blackstrap for it’s strong flavor, tradition, and the iron content is good for battling anemia. But it is hard to find baking recipes for blackstrap. Much appreciated!

    Reply
  4. Carol Tomaselli

    I recently bought some date molasses at the Lebanese market and love it over my yogurt in the morn. Is it interchangeable with regular cooking molasses in breads, cookies? Love the flavor. Carol T

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid , post author

      Hi, Carol. That is an intriguing idea. I think it’s certainly worth a try. It’s not uncommon to use the term molasses to describe any thicker liquid made by boiling down and concentrating a plant juice. Pomegranate molasses is another example, though not nearly as sweet as the date molasses is. Dates are also the source of granulated date sugar, just as sugar cane gives us sugar and molasses. Susan

  5. Nancy Mock

    I loved reading this, and now I’m craving gingerbread anything/everything!
    Reading about the blackstrap molasses has me wondering how it might enhance the flavor of a thick, spicy chili? Hmmm… I might have to try that one soon.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’re no stranger to adding a few tablespoons of brown sugar to spicy chili to bring out the flavors. Molasses might be even more delicious; let us know how you like the results if you give it a try! Kye@KAF

    2. Sara Townsend

      I recently added a couple of tablespoons of molasses to Stubb’s Chilli Mix – it was out of this world delicious!

  6. Cheryl

    I make my own granola and substitute dark molasses for the maple syrup that is usually called for in most recipes. I also have a recipe for pumpkin pie that has a little molasses in it. Unfortunately, my hubby is diabetic and also on a low potassium diet to try to keep him off dialysis as long as possible, so he doesn’t get to eat this yummy stuff.

    Reply
  7. Gail Jehan

    I had recently been wondering how blackstrap molasses was made, so I really appreciate your explanation! I use blackstrap in my not cereal because it has more nutrients and I like the flavor. I have hesitated to use it when baking because the taste is a little bitter, but I just made a pumpkin pie with a mixture of regular molasses and blackstrap, and it came out great.

    Reply
  8. Sonia V

    I’ve been looking into types of molasses lately, so found this to be a very well-timed article, thank-you! One question though – some recipes specify sulphured or unsulphured molasses. How do these compare to the types discussed in the article? Are they equivalent to light/dark, or is it the sulphur specification something different again?

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid , post author

      Sulphur in molasses used to be added back in the day as a preservative, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find any sulphured molasses in the stores these days. Molasses lasts a very long time (I recently made some cookies with 6 year old stuff). I think if you found a recipe calling for sulphured it is likely one that came from decades ago. The presence or absence of molasses has little to do with its flavor profile (how light or dark, sweet or bitter it may be). Susan

  9. Jeannine H.

    I can’t wait to try the molasses seafoam. I’m originally from NH and it was one of my favorite treats. It’s not as easy to find here in CA. I’m used to it being very pale so I look forward to tasting this one.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Stephanie, sorghum syrup comes from the sorghum plant rather than cane sugar and is generally sweeter, milder, and distinctly more vegetal in flavor than light molasses. Mollie@KAF

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