If you’ve seen sorghum on restaurant menus lately, you may be wondering what exactly it is. While sorghum syrup is often just called molasses, sorghum molasses is different from sugarcane molasses. When sorghum cane is boiled down, it results in a sweet, mild syrup perfect for pancakes and baking.
Southern Appalachian families have added sorghum molasses to pies and drizzled it on cornbread for generations, and now it’s showing up at restaurants in many different ways.
“We use it in vinaigrettes. We use it in glazes for meats. Just last week I cured mackerel with sumac and sorghum which ended up really, really nice,” says John Fleer, chef and owner of Rhubarb in Asheville, North Carolina.
He first learned about sorghum when he was the chef at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee. It’s been a mainstay on his menus ever since, and now he’s one of many chefs who have embraced this traditional sweetener.
For farmers like Cathy Guthrie of DoubleTree Farm in Madison County, all this interest in sorghum has been a boon for business. “Since we started doing this, the local food movement has caught on to sorghum. If you can figure out how to make enough of it there is a market for it,” she says.
With all that demand, why doesn’t she just make more? Turning sorghum cane into syrup is a long process. It takes all day to make just eight gallons, if you do it the traditional way with a draft horse, antique mill, and wood-fired furnace. Guthrie learned how to make it from neighbors who have since passed away, and she makes an effort to share their knowledge with new people.
She’s not going to sugar coat how much work it takes. She says you really need someone to show you how to turn sorghum cane into syrup. You probably won’t get good results if you grab a recipe book, a pile of sorghum cane, and try to boil down a batch. “If you want to learn how to do it the best thing would be to try to find somebody that knows how to cook it and spend a couple of days really paying attention to how it’s done,” she explains.
When farmers bring their freshly cut sorghum cane to Guthrie’s farm, she teaches them how to work with the horse and mill, and what to look for when the juice boils down to syrup. She also tells them about some of the challenges she faces. A sugarcane aphid is wreaking havoc on sorghum crops in many parts of the South, and Guthrie lost half of her crop to insects this year. She says the aphid infestation may have an impact on restaurants that want this sought-after sweetener.
“It might be hard for chefs to find sorghum, and the price is definitely going to go up,” she says. “For people who are trying to control the aphid, it’s becoming much more labor intensive. My strategy is going to be to watch and wait and see if there is an organic solution to the aphid problem before I put more energy into expanding my crop.”
Chef John Fleer sources sorghum from Muddy Pond Sorghum Mill, a family-run business in Tennessee that produces sorghum in larger quantities than farmers like Guthrie. Muddy Pond has been his steady supplier since his early days at Blackberry Farm, and he’s carried that relationship with him to Asheville.
Even with the drop in supply because of the aphids, and the increase in demand among chefs, he says he does not anticipate a sorghum shortage at his restaurant. “But I do think that the artisans who are making sorghum are starting not to keep it all for themselves,” he says. “I think they’re starting to share it, knowing that chefs are interested in it and other people are interested in it. They’re starting to share it more.”
Chef Fleer says he’ll keep sorghum on the menu no matter what. “I don’t see it going anywhere, I’ll tell you that,” he says. “It’s a longstanding relationship with a food item that is now near and dear to my heart and to my palate.”
Look for Cathy Guthrie’s sorghum molasses at the French Broad Food Co-op in Asheville and Madison Natural Foods in Marshall. John Fleer’s bakery, The Rhu, has small jugs for sale most times of the year. And keep an eye out for sorghum molasses at farmers markets in late fall.
Find more farmers selling sorghum in ASAP’s local food guide, www.appalachiangrown.org
Aired: November 13, 2017