If there was sulphur in molasses, it would smell a bit off-putting and taste a bit off, as well. Yet, some people see the word “unsulphured” on a bottle of molasses and assume that molasses must contain natural sulphur that is removed via some process by the manufacturer. This is not the case. Unsulphered simply means that sulfur was not used in processing the molasses, as used to be common.
Molasses is the by-product of sugar refining. When sugar is made into the white crystals we are all familiar with, molasses is what is left over. Molasses may come from cane sugar refining or beet sugar refining, but cane is much more common and the molasses from beet sugar is very harsh and unpleasant in flavor. Therefore, it is mostly used for commercial purposes such in animal feeds.
Unsulphured molasses is molasses of any grade that was produced without the use of sulfur dioxide. Notice that I spelled sulfur differently the second time? Sulfur is the common American spelling, and sulphur is still the common British spelling. The sulphur version still hangs around on molasses bottles. Either is correct and, as you see, I used the British version here for the title, since it corresponds to what someone would find on a molasses bottle. However, the version of the word that chemistry uses is sulfur, both in the U.S. and the U.K. Most of the time, on CulinaryLore, I will use the accepted chemistry spelling of elements, unless I have a pressing reason to do otherwise. See the comments below for the reader comment that prompted me to explain this.
As I mentioned above, sulphured molasses is becoming less common as the end product has a slight odor and “off” flavor, and most molasses today is unsulphured. Also, sulfur can be quite allergenic. But why use it in the first place?
Sulfur dioxide, which is what you get when you expose sulfites to acid, is a bleaching and an anti-microbial agent. So the sulfur dioxide was used in molasses to lighten its color and to kill mold and bacteria. It also combats oxidation, which is why it is used in dried fruits. This keeps them from turning brown.
When cane (or beet) is refined, it goes through three stages and each stage produces a different grade of molasses. To understand this, imagine using a tea bag more than once. The first time you steep the tea bag in the hot water, you get a nice strong tea. The second time, you get a much weaker tea, so on and so forth. Well, with molasses, its similar except the process is reversed.The sugar becomes more refined and the molasses becomes darker and less sweet, with a richer and more bitter flavor.
- Light molasses comes from the first stage of refining. It is fairly sweet and has an amber color. The taste is a bit like burnt sugar and it is nice all by itself, used almost as a syrup for pancakes, biscuits, etc. Light molasses is sometimes called Barbados or table molasses.
If you don’t have any light brown sugar (see below) for a recipe, but you have white sugar and light molasses, then you can make light brown sugar by mixing some of the molasses into the white sugar. Yes, that is all brown sugar is: white sugar to which molasses has been added back. All you need is about a teaspoon of molasses for one cup of white sugar. You can add more molasses to suit your taste, if you like, but don’t overdo it! Once you put it in, you can’t take it back out. The only solution, should you make it too strong, would be to add more sugar.
- Dark molasses comes from the second refining stage and it is not as sweet as the light molasses. The flavor is richer and a bit more bitter. Dark molasses is what you want to use for baking and things like chocolate chip cookies or gingerbread, although some recipes call for light molasses. Light and dark can generally be used interchangeably but remember that light is sweeter, so the finished product will be sweeter. For dark brown sugar, do the same thing as above.
Blackstrap molasses is the third stage and it is the last bit of gunk remaining before the sugar is completely refined. Its taste is strong and very bitter, with only a trace of sweetness. I actually get a kick out of the taste, but many people may not have any use for it unless a recipe specifically calls for it, as in a dark gingerbread. Blackstrap molasses is also used in cattle feed.
A consistent myth about blackstrap molasses is that it is a rich source of iron, as well as calcium, potassium, and B vitamins. Some people even recommend it as a treatment for anemia. In reality, blackstrap is a fair but quite unreliable source of iron. In other words, sometimes it is a decent source, but there is not a consistent amount of iron in every batch of blackstrap molasses. When molasses was processed in old iron vats and ran through iron pipes, of course, there would have been more iron it it. But today, stainless steel or aluminum is used. There are more minerals in blackstrap than in light or dark molasses, however, but only slightly more. Since such small amounts are used, if any, it is not a significant source of minerals to the diet, although it may be a good source of some trace minerals, such as chromium.
More About Brown Sugar
Brown sugar, as stated above, is refined white sugar to which molasses is added. There is usually about 10% molasses added but some, if not all, of the molasses only coats the outside of the sugar crystals, making brown sugar softer and stickier with a tendency to clump. Whether the brown sugar is light or dark depends on the type of molasses added, but dark brown sugar sometimes has caramel coloring added to ensure a consistent color, or to get the color even darker. However, there is rarely any difference to the amount of molasses added to the light and dark varieties so the difference is in the inherent flavor of the molasses added.
Usually, for making brown sugar from refined sugar cane crystals, the mollases is only mixed in with the sugar, which is called “painting” the sugar. Another method is to actually cook semi-refined sugar with molasses so that the sugar recrystallizes with the molasses. This method is more often used with sugar from beets than with cane sugar.
Sulfur and “Maraschino” Cherries
In the What is a Liqueur, which contains a guide to various liqueurs, I mentioned Luxardo Maraschino cherries. These were the first maraschino cherries, which were made from the same marascacherries that the company made their famous maraschino liqueur with. The “maraschino” cherries most of us are familiar with today, which are used in bars to garnish cocktails or to top off ice cream sundaes, are nothing but cheap imitations of the Luxardo cherry…and very bad ones at that.
Generic maraschino cherries are made by bleaching red cherries white with sulfur dioxide and then dying them a more garish red or even green. Then the cherries are flavored with oil of bitter almond and packed in syrup. The whole purpose is to try to simulate the flavor of the original Luxardo cherry. Marasca cherries are a bitter variety which Luxardo candies and packs in a syrup of marasca cherries. There is no bleaching or weird coloring added. You can still buy Luxardo cherries.
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