What Molasses Type to Use in your Gingerbread Man Cookie

Molasses - Unveiling the Sweet Secrets

When it comes to baking, few ingredients evoke a sense of warmth and nostalgia quite like molasses. Its rich, robust flavor adds depth to a variety of treats, but navigating the molasses aisle can be a daunting task for many. Sulphured, unsulphured, and light, dark, and blackstrap - these terms can leave even seasoned bakers scratching their heads. In this blog post, we'll dive into the sweet world of molasses, explore the differences between the types, and uncover the reasons behind molasses being the sugar source for gingerbread man cookies in the United States, while honey takes the lead in Europe.

For many years there has existed a difference in the spelling for the name of element number 16 with the symbol S. British English spelt it "sulphur" while North American English used the phonetic spelling "sulfur". In the late 20thC, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) decided that the single spelling of sulfur was preferred. Throughout this course, the British spelling and its derivatives have been used, but the IUPAC version is equally acceptable.

Strangely enough, guess where the city named Sulphur (and not Sulfur) may be located? It is located in the State of Louisiana in the United States, which just shows how illogical the spelling of words may be!

The spelling of sulphur on product labels continues to use the ‘ph’ version so at Ginger’s Breadboys, that is spelling you’ll continue to see.

Understanding Molasses: The Liquid Gold of Baking

Molasses is a byproduct of the sugar refining process, extracted from sugar cane or sugar beets. It is a thick, dark, and sticky liquid with a distinctively bold flavor. The rich, sweet taste of molasses comes from the concentration of sugars, minerals, and vitamins present in the original plant sap.

According to The Sugar Association: “Sugar beet molasses and sugar cane molasses have different flavors and consistencies and are not used interchangeably. Sugar cane molasses is primarily used for sweetening and flavoring foods in the U.S. (and it’s what makes brown sugar brown!) while sugar beet molasses is not very sweet and is primarily used for animal feed and other commercial uses.”

Safe to say, we recommend you use sugar cane molasses in our gingerbread cookie recipe!

Helpful Hint: Have you ever found yourself without brown sugar when baking?  Add (sugar cane) molasses to white granulated sugar and voila, brown sugar!

Decoding the Labels

Light, Dark, or Blackstrap

The classification of molasses is based on the refining process and the number of extractions it undergoes. The Sugar Association again tells us that, “During the refining process, it (molasses) is separated from the sugar crystals by spinning the sugar in a centrifuge. The first spin produces light molasses, while later spins produce darker molasses”. So, first extraction is light, second is dark, and third is Blackstrap.

Light molasses comes from the first boiling of the sugar syrup and is more delicate in flavor and color. Dark molasses comes from a second boiling and is darker, thicker, and less sweet than light or regular molasses. Blackstrap Molasses is the darkest and most concentrated form of molasses. Extracted from the third boiling of the sugar syrup, blackstrap molasses has a distinct bitter flavor and is packed with nutrients like iron, calcium, and magnesium.

Fun Fact from the Sugar Association: Sugar is naturally white. When the sugar is initially extracted from the plants, it has a golden color because of the non-sugar materials attached to and within the sugar crystals. This golden sugar is then purified, where these plant fibers and molasses are removed, extracting the sugar molecules from the non-sugar materials, and restoring the sugar crystals to their natural white color.

Sulphured vs. Unsulphured

Unsulphured molasses is made with mature sugar cane stocks. As the name suggests, unsulphured molasses skips the sulphur treatment, allowing the natural flavors and color of the molasses to shine through. It tends to be darker and has a more robust taste compared to sulphured molasses. The addition of sulphur lightens the color.

At Ginger’s Breadboys, we prefer Grandma’s Molasses for our gingerbread cookies. It is "the highest quality, unsulphured, sun-ripened sugarcane molasses. It contains no preservatives, artificial flavors or artificial colors and is fat free, gluten free and Kosher." 

Sulphured Molasses comes from unripe sugar cane treated with sulphur dioxide during the sugar extraction process. While this treatment helps preserve the molasses and prevents bacterial growth, it also gives the molasses a lighter color and a milder flavor. Sulphur dioxide is used as a processing aid and preservative. It is used mainly when young or unripe stocks of sugar cane are used in the molasses process. Adding sulphur was once common. In the past, many foods, including molasses, were treated with a sulphur dioxide preservative to help kill off molds and bacteria. But most brands are abandoning the use of sulphur in molasses. Untreated molasses already has a relatively stable natural shelf life.

I was unable to definitively find out why sugar cane would be harvested when unripe or not yet matured naturally. I can only suspect that this would be when the weather prevented natural maturity and it was necessary so as not to lose the entire crop. I found this notation that told me that harvesting of sugarcane often begins before the sugarcane reaches the desirable maturity level especially in the Louisiana sugarcane industry where the window for harvesting is limited because of the risk of freezing temperatures.

Each type of molasses serves a unique purpose in the kitchen, and choosing the right one depends on the desired flavor profile of your recipe.

Gingerbread Man Cookies: The Role of Molasses in the United States

In the United States, molasses takes the spotlight as the sugar source for gingerbread man cookies. The deep, caramel-like sweetness of molasses pairs perfectly with the warm spices of ginger, cinnamon, and cloves, creating the iconic flavor profile of these classic treats. The choice of molasses over other sweeteners adds a depth and complexity that elevates gingerbread to a cherished holiday tradition.

But why molasses instead of honey, as is commonly used in European gingerbread recipes?

Molasses vs. Honey: A Tale of Two Continents

The choice between molasses and honey in gingerbread recipes can be traced back to historical and regional differences. In the United States, molasses was more readily available and affordable, making it a natural choice for early American bakers. The strong, bold flavor of molasses also complemented the spices used in traditional gingerbread recipes, creating a distinctive American twist on this beloved treat.

On the other side of the Atlantic, honey was abundant in Northern Europe. Cane sugar – and molasses - was an expensive import from the southern most regions that had the climate to grow sugar cane. Sugar production is highly labor-intensive in both growing and processing. Because of the huge weight and bulk of the raw cane it was very costly to transport from south to north, especially by land. Honey was cheaper and abundant. Plus honey’s milder, floral sweetness harmonized with the spices used in European gingerbread recipes.

The availability and affordability of ingredients, coupled with regional preferences, led to the divergence in sweeteners used in these two variations of gingerbread. From the 20th century onward, using honey or molasses is a now matter of taste preferences and what is considered regionally traditional.

In conclusion, molasses, whether sulphured, unsulphured or dark, light, or blackstrap, is a versatile and essential ingredient in the world of baking - especially gingerbread. Understanding the nuances of each type can empower you to make informed choices in your recipes, while also appreciating the historical and cultural influences that shape our favorite treats.

So, the next time you embark on a gingerbread baking adventure, let molasses be your sweet companion, infusing your kitchen with the irresistible aroma of holiday cheer.

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