Sorghum molasses is a thick, sweet syrup made from the juices of sugar cane. A rich brown color, sorghum molasses is enjoyed as a breakfast food served with hot biscuits in the southern United States, especially Kentucky and Tennessee. The syrup is also used as a sweetener in baking and cooking.
Before refined sugars were readily available, sorghum molasses was the most common sweetener in much of the United States. Most family farms in the mid-19th century in the southern United States and into parts of the Midwest grew at least enough sugar cane to provide for their families, and many grew extra to have some molasses to sell. Many farmers had their own mills and evaporating pans to turn the cane into molasses. If they didn't have their own setup to process the crop, they relied on the use of a neighbor's mills.
Sorghum cane, also known as sugar cane in the southern United States, grows in tall stalks that can reach a height of 12 feet (3.6 m). The base of the stalk can be as much as 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter. The stalks have clusters of seeds at their top. Sorghum cane is ready to harvest about 120 days after planting.
The harvesting of sorghum cane is labor intensive, as is the process of turning the cane into molasses. The work begins in the field, where workers strip the leaves from the stalks and remove the seed clusters, or heads, from the tops of the stalks. After this work is done, the stalk is finally cut.
A worker then feeds each stalk into the mill by hand. Traditionally, the mills were pulled by horses, though many of the farmers who still make sorghum molasses now pull their mills using a tractor. As the stalk goes through the mill, rollers crush it and squeeze the juice from it. The juice then pours into a pot.
The juice is strained to remove any vegetation that might have fallen into it and then poured into the evaporator pan. Most farmers have a fire pit dug into the ground, and the evaporator pan, about 4 feet (1.2 m) wide, 10 feet (.3 m) long, and 1 foot (0.3 m) deep, is placed on top of the fire pit. As the juice cooks, a worker is constantly skimming it to remove the impurities that rise to the top during the process. The juice must boil before it is finished.