What’s really in the molasses?

Sometimes the things that are ostensibly the simplest turn out to pose the most interesting problems. Molasses, for example, which I’ve been using by the gallon to bake all this gingerbread. In an age when practically everything Americans use in the kitchen is constructed to industrial specifications — unless, like farmers market produce, it’s specifically branded and marketed in opposition to that sort of standardization — it’s surprising to find that a packaged, branded product has enough variation to fundamentally changed the character of baked goods, but that’s exactly what I’ve found with molasses.

molasses ready for testing

The lineup, ready for testing. Equipment and photo courtesy of Trish Lemm. (full size).

Molasses is what’s left over after sugar cane has been crushed, its juices boiled down to a syrup, and sugar crystallized out. In the parlance of the eighteenth century, first molasses was what was left after the sugar had been crystallized out once. When this was re-boiled and more sugar crystallized out, the remaining syrup was second molasses. After a third time, the molasses was blackstrap molasses. Blackstrap is still the result of the final boiling, which is why it’s less sweet and more strongly flavored and has a higher concentration of nutrients (such as iron and calcium) than other molasses.

“Other molasses,” though, has a lot of variation. I bought five brands that are available in various local supermarkets, and Ivy (my daughter) and I tasted them straight up and in gingerbread that used molasses as its only sweetener. Here’s our review:

  • Grandma’s Original B&G Foods), from the description on the company’s website, is actually cane syrup: pure sugar cane juice boiled down, with no sugar extracted. It is noticeably the sweetest brand I tried. The molasses flavor is fairly subtle. (B&G also makes a Grandma’s Robust, but I haven’t been able to find that.)
  • Golding Farms is less sweet than Grandma’s Original, both straight-up and in gingerbread. My guess is that it’s first molasses; it tastes like molasses, but I wouldn’t call it an especially strong flavor.
  • Wholesome Organic lists as its ingredient “organic blackstrap molasses.” Yet it is as sweet as Golding Farms, I think, but the sweetness is masked by sour notes and a bitter finish. I didn’t bake with this one; Ivy and I both thought it was lousy.
  • Brer Rabbit advertises itself as having “Full Flavor,” and it definitely has the richest and most complex flavor of the brands we tried. Definitely not quite as sweet as Golding Farms, either straight up or in gingerbread, but not at all bitter. My guess is that this is second molasses, but very carefully made.
  • Plantation Blackstrap has a strong flavor, not much sweetness, and a distinctly bitter finish. The bitterness masked what I thought should have been a complex flavor.

What was most striking was the difference between the molasses gingerbread made from Grandma’s Original and the gingerbread made from Brer Rabbit. The latter had a good flavor but was distinctly less sweet — not sweet enough for modern palates, I’d say. The Golding Farms, balancing sweetness and flavor, made the best gingerbread. Ivy and I agreed that the Brer Rabbit is what you want as a syrup on pancakes, and that the Grandma’s Original would make a good pancake syrup for people who didn’t really like molasses all that much. The Brer Rabbit would also be the best choice in a recipe that used molasses as a flavoring, combined with white sugar. Wholesome Organic was just awful, and the Plantation Blackstrap was only good for medicinal purposes.

The reason blackstrap molasses gets so much good press is that as sugar is removed and the remaining syrup concentrated, the nutrient density goes up. The nutrition facts on the labels ought to show an inverse correlation between sugar content, measured by calories (kcal) per tablespoon serving, and the percent RDA of various nutrients.

brand kcal/Tbsp percent RDA
potassium calcium iron magnesium
Grandma’s Original 70 3% 4% 4% 2%
Golding Farms 60 n/a 4% 6% n/a
Wholesome Organic 60 20% 10% 15% 8%
Brer Rabbit 60 6% 8% 2% 8%
Plantation Blackstrap 42 17% 20% 20% n/a

The calorie data backs up our taste-tests, except in the case of the Brer Rabbit, which is distinctly less sweet than the Golding Farms even though each claims 60 kcal/Tbsp. The nutrient density of the Wholesome Organic suggests that it is, as claimed, blackstrap — but at 60 kcal/Tbsp it’s almost half again as sweet as the Plantation (as we noted in our taste tests). I’m not sure how that is — do they add sugar back in, somehow, in sufficiently concentrated form to keep the nutrient density high?

Brer Rabbit also has more calcium, potassium, and nutrient than the sweeter brands, which I’d expect if it is in fact second molasses — but less iron. Does iron that makes the molasses bitter, and Brer Rabbit filter out some of the iron to keep the robust flavor of second molasses but avoid the bitterness?

Finally, I wanted to test acidity. Molasses is acidic, and I assumed that blackstrap would be most acidic, since it has higher concentrations of everything besides sucrose, and sucrose isn’t acidic. Again, Trish Lemm of the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science helped me out (thanks, Trish!). Because molasses is so viscous, we mixed 50 mL molasses with 50 mL distilled water, then measured its pH with a Vernier pH probe. Since it’s part of a hands-on lab at a children’s museum, the pH meter had taken quite a bit of use and probably abuse, and the pH measurements may be a bit off — distilled water measured at 6.6. I’m really interested only in the relative acidity of the various brands, though, and I think the data is reliable enough to give me that.

brand sweetness (rank) pH
Grandma’s 1 5.4
Folding Farms 2 5.4
Wholesome Organic 3 5.5
Brer Rabbit 4 5.6
Plantation Blackstrap 5 5.6

I was wrong about this one: the blackstrap was marginally less acidic than the other varieties. The variation in pH isn’t enough to make a practical difference in cooking — say, when you’re reacting molasses with baking soda — nor could Ivy and I the difference (except, again, with the Wholesome Organic, which tasted sour even though it’s no more acidic than the Grandma’s). The key point in baking is that molasses is acidic, and that it takes about a cup of it to neutralize a teaspoon of baking soda. I can’t explain the slight variation in pH, and in fact I’m inclined to say that it’s probably within the range of experimental error.

In any case, the differences are a reminder that recipes are often written with false precision. We expect that if we follow the instructions and measure precisely, we’ll all end up with exactly the same product. But there’s always variability, and working with real ingredients is where the craft comes into cooking. </homily>