This is Highly Recommend, a column dedicated to what food people are eating, drinking, and buying right now. Here, Eric Johnson writes about his passion for sorghum syrup.
I hold my sweetened staples near and dear. I spend as many mornings as possible baking muffins, scones, or some kind of coffee cake or cinnamon roll. But lately, I’ve been rethinking my relationship to refined cane sugar. Starting my day off with a blood sugar spike leaves me feeling fatigued by noon, and so I’ve been seeking out alternative natural sweeteners with lower glycemic indexes. I tried honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, and molasses, but they didn’t thrill me. I thought I’d never find the sugar alternative of my dreams—until I stumbled across Bourbon Barrel Foods sorghum syrup.
The sorghum plant is a flowering grass found across the US, and the syrup is made by extracting and heating the sorghum cane’s juice. Bourbon Barrel Foods’s sweet sorghum syrup comes from a fifth-generation farm in Jeffersonville, Kentucky, and the company takes the process one step farther by aging the syrup in whiskey barrels for about six months. The result is a slightly earthy, smoky, barely bitter sweetener that, to me, is like a better, sweeter molasses.
Pure sorghum syrup is subtle yet sweet enough to be swapped in as a 1:1 alternative for other liquid sweeteners like corn syrup, cane syrup, honey, and molasses in some recipes. It can even replace granulated sugar in the right circumstances (though for baked goods, you may need to reduce the other liquids in the recipe). I started to drizzle it over my waffles and have even added it to my coffee. As a bonus, it’s loaded with nutrients like potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iron, and it doesn’t spike blood sugar as dramatically as refined sugars, thanks to a lower glycemic index.
While sorghum syrup is new to me, it’s long been a staple in Southern and Appalachian cooking (see: this Appalachian Apple Stack Cake). “As commonplace as maple syrup in Vermont, sorghum is used by Southern cooks to bring a sense of place to their dishes,” says Joey Ward, executive chef of Southern Belle in Atlanta. In The Cooking Gene, writer and culinary historian Michael W. Twitty outlines the history of sorghum in America. He traces at least one variety back to southern Africa, which likely arrived to the country as a result of slavery. “Sorghum is one of Africa’s more important contributions to plant domestication,” he writes. By the mid-1800s, it was widely cultivated in the US, and the syrup was used similarly to how we use it today: It was popular for sweetening coffee, baked goods, and even as a condiment at the table for drizzling on cornbread and hot biscuits.