What Is Molasses?

Dark, thick molasses brings so many great qualities to the table when you’re cooking. Pull up a chair and learn more about it.

August 26, 2021
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1017183208

Organic Black Cane Sugar Molasses in a Bowl

Photo by: bhofack2/Getty Images

bhofack2/Getty Images

By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen

Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.

You’ve probably used molasses dozens of times without really thinking about what it is, where it comes from - the grocery store is not the answer to this question - how it's made and how else you could be using it. Spoiler: sugar cane travels a long way from the field to your bottle of molasses. Let’s follow its journey.

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182159812

Detail of Fresh Cut Pieces of Sugar CaneSEE my other photos from JAMAICA:

Photo by: narvikk/Getty Images

narvikk/Getty Images

What Is Molasses?

Molasses is the liquid that is left after white sugar is processed from sugar cane juice. It can also be leftover from processing sugar from sugar beets, but beet molasses is typically used in animal feed - not in cooking. Molasses is a thick, dark syrup, high in minerals and lower in sugar than other syrups. It’s so thick that it pours very slowly from the jar, and if it’s cold, molasses becomes thicker and flows even more slowly, hence the phrase “slower than molasses in January.”

What Does Molasses Taste Like?

The flavor of molasses reminds many of gingerbread cookies, and that's because molasses gives gingerbread its characteristic color and flavor. If you tasted it off a spoon, though, you'd detect sweet burnt caramel notes, a hint of smoke and a prune-like aftertaste.

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818563412

Photo by: shaifulzamri/Getty Images

shaifulzamri/Getty Images

How Is Molasses Made?

To make molasses, you need to start with sugar cane. The leaves are removed from the cane, the cane is washed, chopped and crushed and then sprayed with hot water to soften it. At this point, the cane goes through a big crushing mill to extract all its juice. There are lots of vitamins and minerals and of course sugar, in this juice. After some other processes, ultimately, the juice turns into a liquid that is boiled - and the sugars crystalize. The sugar crystals are removed (and processed and sold), and you have molasses left. The liquid goes through this process three times, each time giving us a different type of molasses.

What Are The Different Types Of Molasses?

Each of the three crystallization steps outlined above yields a specific molasses.

What Is Light Molasses?

When the first batch of sugar is removed, the result is light molasses. It’s a brown syrup that is the sweetest of the three, with the mildest flavor. It’s the molasses most recipes use.

What Is Dark Molasses?

To get more cane sugar, the light molasses is boiled again. When the sugar crystalizes second time, the molasses that is left is thicker, has a stronger flavor and is less sweet than light molasses, which makes sense because we just boiled more sugar out of it. This is dark or robust molasses, and it can be used in place of light molasses in most recipes - just be prepared for a darker color in cookies or breads.

What Is Blackstrap Molasses?

When the molasses is boiled for the third and final time, what’s left is very dark, bitter and very thick. This is blackstrap molasses, which should be used only when the recipe calls for it (sometime grilled meat and barbecue recipes call for it). Chances are, if you make a cake or cookies with blackstrap molasses, you will not be happy with the results.

What Is Unsulfured Molasses?

At one time, sulfur was often used to preserve molasses. The sulfur imparted a chemical taste to the molasses that was unpleasant, so molasses that didn’t undergo the sulfur treatment was clearly labeled unsulfured. Technology has improved, and almost all molasses is now unsulfured.

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Photo by: Simon Potter/Getty Images

Simon Potter/Getty Images

What Is Molasses Used For?

First and most importantly for bakers and cooks, molasses is added back to white sugar to create brown sugar. Where would chocolate chip cookies be without brown sugar? The amount of molasses added to the sugar is how we get light and dark brown sugar: the dark has more molasses.

As an ingredient in its own right, molasses is used for several different purposes in cooking and baking.

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Homemade rye loaf bread (Traditional Russian Borodino bread) with coriander, selective focus

Photo by: laperla_foto/Getty Images

laperla_foto/Getty Images

In baking, molasses imparts robust flavor to spice cookies, gingerbread and some cakes. Another one of its unique properties? It attracts water, meaning it helps bread, cake or cookie recipes turn out soft and stay fresh longer. Finally, dark molasses lends density to breads common in much of Eastern Europe and Russia that are made with a high percentage of rye flour (such as pumpernickel), resulting in loaves so firm that they can be sliced to 1/8th of an inch.

In cooking, molasses is commonly used in baked beans. That's because molasses is rich in calcium, which allows the beans to be baked for a long time without losing their shape and becoming mushy - and imparts a characteristic sweet-tangy flavor. It's also used in barbecue and in meat glazes, such as some for baked ham.

What Is a Molasses Substitute?

If you’re looking for a syrup with a milder flavor, agave, maple and corn syrup are all options. If you’ve just run out and want molasses flavor, the best substitute is dark brown sugar because it has molasses in it. Brown sugar does have some moisture, but not nearly as much as molasses, so use 3/4 cup packed dark or light brown sugar in place of 1 cup of molasses.

Our Favorite Molasses Tip

When measuring molasses or any syrup, coat your measuring cup with vegetable cooking spray, oil or butter. The grease will cause that molasses to flow out of the cup much faster than molasses in January.

Molasses Recipes 

Classic 100, gingerbread cookies

Photo by: Caitlin Ochs

Caitlin Ochs

It's no surprise that our very best version of this classic holiday cookie calls for plenty of molasses - 3/4 of a cup, to be precise.

Photo by: Armando Rafael

Armando Rafael

The molasses in the glaze for this ham adds a richness that makes it taste even more smoked.

Food Network Kitchen’s Chewy Ginger Molasses Skillet Cookie for Comfort All of the Skillet Cookies, as seen on Food Network

Photo by: Tara Donne ©©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Tara Donne, ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

How beautiful is this skillet cookie? The molasses ensures its chewiness and will help it stay fresh.

A Kansas City sauce in a small white bowl on top of a yellow and white plaid tablecloth

Photo by: Tara Donne ©Food Network

Tara Donne, Food Network

Smoky-sweet is the trademark of all Kansas City-Style BBQ sauce, and molasses brings both.

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FNK_RoastDuck_H

Food Network Kitchen’s Roast Duck for THANKSGIVING/BAKING/WEEKEND COOKING, as seen on Foodnetwork.com,Food Network Kitchen’s Roast Duck for THANKSGIVING/BAKING/WEEKEND COOKING, as seen on Foodnetwork.com

Photo by: Renee Comet ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Renee Comet, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Brushing this roast duck with the sticky-sweet glaze after it’s out of the oven and resting before carving is genius - you get the benefit of the glaze without worrying that it might burn in the oven.

BBQ Baked Beans

Photo by: Teri Lyn Fisher

Teri Lyn Fisher

Molasses and mustard powder are essentials when making baked beans, even if you’re taking the shortcut and starting with canned beans.

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