Molasses is the viscous liquid left behind after sugar is removed from sugarcane or sugar beet juice. Most molasses comes from sugarcane as it is being processed to make sugar. It was, at one point, used to make rum and was also the primary sweetener used by the poor, as refined sugar was reserved for the wealthy. It waned in popularity as sugar became cheaper to make and more widely available.
These days, molasses is nowhere near as widely used as it once was, but it is still a valuable ingredient that is important to a variety of classic dishes and baked goods. Molasses is a useful ingredient for dishes like:
The traditional flavor profile of baked beans is mainly due to two ingredients: sugar and molasses. The molasses gives a deep richness and depth to the beans as well as a little sweetness. Molasses can help the consistency of baked beans as well. It provides a syrupy, sticky consistency that significantly improves the mouthfeel of the liquid component.
One of the most popular applications for molasses in the modern era is in\ barbecue sauce. The deep caramel note in molasses amplifies the savory flavors of other seasonings. It also enhances the caramelized and smokey notes of meat that has been cooked low and slow over aromatic wood.
Molasses will also give barbecue sauce the deep brown color that we associate with barbecue sauce as well as a mirror-like sheen. Molasses gives barbecue sauce the sticky texture essential for certain barbecue styles and keeps the meat from drying out.
Molasses has long been a traditional ingredient in marinades where it gives meat the deep mahogany color that makes smoked or roasted meats more visually appealing.
Molasses is also important for flavor and works in the same way that soy sauce does in marinades, which is by enhancing umami notes. The sweetness and caramel qualities of molasses can also increase the complexity of the flavor profiles in savory meat dishes.
Molasses is among the key ingredients in many traditional dessert recipes that date back to when it was among the Western World’s most popular sweeteners. These desserts include shoofly pie, which comes from the Pennsylvania Dutch, similar to a pecan pie but with molasses instead of corn syrup and minus the pecans.
It is essential for other classics like gingerbread, which is another holdover from molasses’ heyday. German pfeffernusse cookies are a seasonal gingerbread-style cookie still made in the modern era, and that uses molasses for color and flavor.
Various quick and yeast-based bread recipes include molasses for color and flavor. Brown bread and American-style pumpernickel both get their deep brown color from molasses. In the latter, the molasses is used for its color and to shorten the baking time.
In comparison, European-style pumpernickel gets its dark brown color from its long baking process. The same dough for American-style pumpernickel is used to make pumpernickel bagels. The unique richness of these types of bread is due in part to the complex butterscotch notes that they get from molasses.
Molasses is used in the commercial production of brown sugar. The sugar is first refined and whitened, then a specific amount of molasses is added to it to make it brown. Light brown sugar has a smaller amount of molasses added to it when compared to dark brown sugar. The refinement and addition of molasses ensures a consistent product with every batch having the same color and flavor.