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Months after I had taste-tested my way through Laurie Colwin’s gingerbread cakes, I found I was still mulling over what she said about Steen’s Pure Ribbon Cane Syrup, her favorite stand-in for molasses:
Besides the ginger, the heart of gingerbread is molasses. Now, there is molasses and molasses and there is the King of Molasses, which is available in the South but virtually unknown in the North.
It tastes good, to be sure, but I couldn't help wondering what cane syrup actually is: Is it in fact molasses? And how is it different from Lyle’s Golden Syrup, another sweet syrup called for in one of her cakes?
If this article were a Sesame Street episode, I would tell you that it's brought to you by the letter S—for sugarcane and sugar syrups, of course. But in truth, it's brought to you by Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, one of the books we most often turn to in order to answer our kitchen conundrums.
The most important takeaway I learned from McGee (on this topic, anyway) is this: Molasses and cane syrups are byproducts of the process of turning sugarcane into refined sugar (although cane syrup doesn't have to be, but we'll get to that later).
Today, we’re solely talking about the sugar syrups that come from processing sugarcane, but if you're familiar with sugar refining process, you might be thinking, "But sugar beets can also be used to create table sugar, too!" This is true, and although the refining process for both is similar in a lot of ways, you're probably not going to want to consume sugar syrups made from sugar beets. As McGee explains, “beet molasses and syrups are not palatable,” though beet molasses is used to feed “animals and industrial fermentation microbes.”
Molasses comes in about midway through the process of turning sugar cane into refined sugar. Massively simplifying the process, sugarcane is crushed to collect the juice, the juice is clarified to remove impurities, and boiled to evaporate water and create crystals. The raw sugar is then spun in a centrifuge (if you don’t remember this from your chemistry lab, think of the motion of a salad spinner or the Gravitron at the summer fair—same idea) to force remaining liquid (molasses) off of the crystals. The crystallization and centrifuge process happens more than once though to maximize the amount of sugar that can be created from each batch, resulting in “first” molasses, “second” molasses, and “third” or “final” molasses (what we know as blackstrap molasses).
Because the molasses is spun off in these stages, molasses can range from golden-brown and mild to nearly black and bitter. McGee explains the differences:
The darker the molasses, the more its sugars have been transformed by caramelization and browning reactions, and so the less sweet and more bitter it is.
Black treacle is the molasses equivalent for our friends in the UK. They can be used interchangeably and are sometimes said to be one and the same, but others contend there’s a technical distinction between the two, “in that molasses is obtained from the draining of raw sugar during the refining process and treacle is made from the syrup obtained from the sugar.” (Admittedly, I don't entirely follow this, but I will accept that there's a slight difference.)
An unrelated product, sweet sorghum syrup, is sometimes called sorghum molasses, but it isn’t true molasses since it’s made from the sorghum plant, not sugarcane or sugar beets. I know what you’re thinking, and no, pomegranate molasses isn’t true molasses either. Sorry.
Cane syrups are golden to medium brown, very sweet, and mild in flavor—though with more character than their common substitute, corn syrup.
Golden syrup (“light treacle” or simply “treacle” in the UK) is produced further along in the sugar refining process, as a part of the process of turning raw sugar into refined sugar. Again, drastically oversimplifying the process, the raw sugar is whitened and clarified to remove impurities, and goes through a centrifuge process as well, forcing liquid off of the crystals, but this time, it’s a lighter, more delicate syrup than the molasses that was produced earlier in the process. This is how Lyle’s Golden Syrup is made.
Cane syrups can also be made directly from cane juice, meaning it's a product in its own right and not a byproduct. Sugarcane is ground to extract the juice, and the juice is cooked and concentrated in open kettles. Although cane syrup can be made this way, Steen's is the only producer left that makes cane syrup from sugarcane juice, so it has been designated as an Ark of Taste food product by Slow Food USA (this means that it's a distinctive and culturally significant food product).
If you can't get enough sugar syrups, we’ve talked about honey and maple syrup over here, and we’ve covered processed sugar syrups—from starch like glucose syrup, corn syrup (and varieties of corn syrup like high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, high maltose corn syrup) and invert sugars—over here.
And if you're curious about more of the specific differences between molasses and cane syrups, McGee, as always, has you covered:
Light molasses may be 35% sucrose and 35% invert sugars, and 2% minerals; blackstrap molasses may be 35% sucrose, 20% invert sugars, and 10% minerals. ...[Cane syrups] generally contain a combination of sucrose (25-30%) and invert sugars (50%)...
Head to the kitchen—molasses is for more than just gingerbread:
Tell us: What's your favorite sweet, sugary syrup?