Most ingredients used by bakers are universal, such as eggs, butter and milk. However, a few are firmly rooted in a specific region. One example is sorghum syrup, a cherished Southern tradition. It's a dark, sweet syrup suitable for table use or as a flavorful baking ingredient. For example, Southern gingerbread recipes often include sorghum. If you can't find it in your area, there are substitutions you can make.
Sorghum is one of the world's major staple crops, a small grain closely related to millet. Like millet, it's important in regions of Africa and Asia where drought and poor soil would quickly kill most other grains. In the United States it's primarily grown as animal feed, but the plant's stalks -- like sugar cane -- are rich in sweet sap. To make sorghum syrup, manufacturers crush the stalks, then purify and concentrate that sap. The result is a dark-colored sweetener with a complex flavor similar to that of molasses, but slightly tangier.
For that reason, molasses is the most common substitution for sorghum in gingerbread. It's used in most gingerbread recipes from outside the South, and its flavor complements ginger and other warm spices just as well. The lightest table molasses, sometimes called "fancy" molasses, is the closest to sorghum in color and flavor. Regular dark molasses will give your gingerbread a richer flavor and darker color. If you miss the mild tang of sorghum, include a small amount of buttermilk or lemon juice in your recipe's liquids.
Dark Corn Syrup
Dark corn syrup is a less satisfactory substitute. Its consistency and sweetness are comparable to sorghum, but it has little flavor. If dark corn syrup is the only substitute in your pantry, compensate for its lack of flavor by tweaking your spices. Grate a small amount of fresh ginger into your liquid ingredients, and add a pinch of allspice or a smaller pinch of cloves. A teaspoon of espresso powder darkens the gingerbread, and provides the hint of earthiness and bitterness you'd get from sorghum or molasses.
Barley Malt Syrup
Your local health food store or bulk foods store might sell jars of barley malt syrup, a thick sweetener made from sprouted barley. It has a dark, molasseslike appearance and a complex flavor. It's harder to find than molasses or corn syrup, but its rich flavor -- just as complex as molasses or sorghum, but mellower -- makes it an interesting alternative in gingerbreads.
Maple syrup is an unconventional substitute for sorghum, but it brings an interestingly different character to gingerbread. It's much thinner than sorghum, so start with one-third more syrup and simmer it until it's reduced to the amount called for in your recipe. If your local stores have multiple grades of syrup, buy the darker-colored lower grade. It has a more concentrated flavor. Maple's flavor brings out the sweetness in the ginger and cinnamon, so counter that by adding a pinch of allspice, clove or black pepper to your batter. The spices will restore the balance of flavors in your gingerbread, giving it back its familiar mild spicy "bite."
- On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
- The Cook's Thesaurus: Liquid Sweeteners
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