Sorghum: A Sweet Staple

Food and Travel, In Season, Ingredient, Regional Food
on September 27, 2012
Mark Boughton Photography / styling by Teresa Blackburn

A tall cereal grass with corn-like leaves, sorghum (SOR-guhm) is a staple food of North Africa and India, where it’s ground and used in porridge, flatbreads and the production of alcohol. It’s the third leading cereal crop in the United States, but the vast majority is used as animal fodder. Those animals must be eating well, because sorghum is a nutritional powerhouse. It contains vitamins and minerals and plenty of antioxidants.

Believed to have been domesticated first in Ethiopia, sorghum spread along trade routes, reaching North America in the  17th century. A group of sweet cultivars became especially popular, not for their grain, but for the sap in their stems. The sap is squeezed and then evaporated to produce sorghum syrup, often referred to—incorrectly—as “sorghum molasses.” (Molasses comes from sugar cane, but that’s another story.) Sorghum syrup is especially popular in the South, where it functions much like the Northern Yankee’s maple syrup. Sorghum-sweetened baked goods and sorghum-drenched biscuits are well-loved dishes.

With a consistency of molasses, sorghum can be used anywhere maple syrup, honey or molasses is.  Look for 100 percent pure sorghum rather than sorghum-flavored table syrup, which is part corn syrup. Pure sorghum has a richer, more complex flavor.

Today, sorghum may be enjoying a comeback. Major U.S. breweries have launched sorghum beers for drinkers with wheat and gluten sensitivities. It’s also a key ingredient in Guinness beer. Agriculturalists are singing its praises as a drought-resistant crop. And scientists both here and in India have discovered its value in the production of bio-fuels and are actively researching varieties best suited to energy production.

—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.