Food & Drink

What Exactly Is Molasses, Anyway?

You're using it a lot right about now, but do you have any clue what it is?

Around the holidays you see a lot of foods and ingredients that you don't particularly eat a lot of the rest of the year. Eggnog, for one, but also gingerbread, peppermint and if you're in England, bread sauce and Christmas pudding. (If you aren't in England and have no idea what we just said, we've got you covered.) One ingredient we see a lot around Christmastime that we wish made more consistent appearances in our lives is molasses. The critical component in all your gingerbread cookies, breads and Nutella-stuffed gingerbread beignets (yeah, that's what we said), molasses is an integral part of the holiday season. You use it every year for some of your favorite Christmas desserts, but do you know exactly what molasses is and where it comes from? In the Christmas edition of our elegantly titled "WTF is that anyway?" series, we're investigating molasses, so you can have all the answers at the family table this year.

Molasses is a thick, sticky syrup that comes from boiled down sugar cane juice or sugar beet juice. To make molasses from sugar cane, you press the sugar cane stalks to extract juice, and then reduce the liquid to form crystalized sugar. Once the crystals have been removed, you're left with a light molasses. Sugar beet molasses comes from reducing the juice that has been pressed from the sugar beet, but unlike regular molasses, which can be made from one reduction, sugar beet molasses must be reduced a couple times to become molasses. You can also reduce sugar cane molasses down a second and third time to create darker, more bitter varieties, but the first boiling will create a useable molasses. The more times molasses is boiled down, the spicier and more intense the flavors become.

Blackstrap molasses is the result of reducing sugar cane juice three times. It's not only more bitter, but it is also said to have more health benefits than regular molasses. It's high in calcium, iron and antioxidants. Pass the gingerbread beignets, please.

One of our favorite parts about molasses, besides the fact that it's responsible for all our gingerbread dreams, is that molasses makes rum. Rum comes from distilling molasses or sugar cane juice directly, so if you're not a fan of gingerbread, molasses can still be your pal this holiday season in the form of this liquor. As NPR explains, in the 17th century molasses was more of a waste problem than a coveted ingredient. A byproduct of crystalized cane sugar, which was growing in demand at the time, molasses was abundant in sugar-producing areas like the Caribbean. "Then someone, somewhere — maybe in Barbados, maybe in Brazil — figured out that this industrial byproduct ferments if you mix it with some sugary water. Just like that, the rum business took off."

Whether you're enjoying rum, the spirit that's having a comeback, or gingerbread this holiday season, now you can now tell all your relatives what it is that's making their holiday indulgences so sweet.

Watch the video below to see the molasses-making magic in progress, and happy holidays!

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