Know Your Ingredients
Make Mine Molasses
Revisiting a sweet holiday treat
In January 1919, a 14,000-ton tank of molasses burst and sent a 30-foot wall of ooze rampaging through downtown Boston. It crushed a firehouse, flung horses and wagons into the air, and molassesed 21 people to death.
Up to that time, molasses had been America's No. 1 sweetener. But within six years of the Boston disaster, sales of the sticky syrup were slower than molasses in January. (Sorry.)
But molasses' decline had less to do with bad publicity, and more to do with money. Before World War I, the price of refined sugar was so high that many ordinary people couldn't afford it. What they could afford was the by-product of sugar refining: a strong-tasting, sweet syrup called molasses (from the Latin mel, meaning honey).
That's why just about every nostalgic Christmas sweet calls for molasses—gingerbread, fruitcake, mincemeat, plum pudding, figgy pudding. Molasses lends them that smoky, spicy, old-fashioned flavor that you can't get with refined sugar.
Today's molasses is far milder than old-fashioned molasses. You can still buy "blackstrap" molasses—the strongly flavored, only slightly sweet syrup that's left after sugar cane juice has been refined three times—but it's mostly used in livestock feed nowadays.
A couple of things to look for on the molasses label: "Unsulphured" means no sulfur dioxide has been added as a preservative. "Full flavor" or "robust" probably means the molasses contains some "first molasses," or syrup that's left over after sugar cane juice has been refined once. "Fancy" or "original" molasses is the mild molasses that most modern palates prefer. It's simply raw cane juice with all of its sugar still intact.
That's the molasses you're most likely to use in your molasses cookies, gingersnaps, baked beans and shoo-fly pie.
If you want to get totally nostalgic this Christmas, boil your molasses with a little sugar, butter and a dab of soda or vinegar and indulge in that favorite youth pastime of centuries past: a taffy pull.