Sorghum is a type of grass containing a cereal grain, much like wheat, oats, or barley. It was originally native to Africa, but has been cultivated in many other parts of the world, including North America, for at least 150 years.
In its homeland, sorghum can grow to heights greater than six feet, and the long stalks are often used to make furniture and building materials. Here, shorter dwarf varieties are favored because they are easier to harvest. When it ripens, sorghum is becomes red and hard. It can be dried and stored whole after harvesting to extend its shelf life.
Because it thrives in dry conditions, sorghum is one of the most important food crops in many parts of Africa, India, and other arid regions. In China, distilled sorghum is fermented into a popular liquor called maotai, while in Northern Africa and the Middle East, unmilled sorghum grains are often used to make couscous.
Here, it has been primarily used for animal feed, though there has been a recent renaissance in the production of sorghum products for people, and it’s possible to buy commercial flours made from sorghum grains. Its increased popularity is due in part to the growing number of people choosing to exclude wheat from their diets, due to Celiac disease or other reasons.
Sorghum flour is heavy, similar to whole-wheat flour, and can be used in a wide range of baked goods, including breads and muffins. It is high in fiber, protein, iron, calcium, potassium, and magnesium, and is low in calories. Sorghum flour is very dry, though, and can be tricky to bake with. Cornstarch can help to compensate for this dryness, so that baked goods made from sorghum flour come out moist instead of crumbly. For best results, add one tablespoon of cornstarch for every cup of sorghum flour. Extra oil or egg white can also help.
One variety of sorghum — sweet sorghum — has been a popular food crop in some parts of the United States for several years. As the name suggests, this variety of sorghum is high in natural sugar content. Traditionally, it has been cooked down and concentrated into a syrup that is then bottled for sale. Sweet sorghum syrup, which is thick and brown and sticky, is often called “molasses,” though true molasses is made from sugar cane or sugar beets. It is often used much like maple syrup in regions where real maple syrup is hard to come by, particularly in southeastern and plains states. In Appalachia, it was most often eaten over biscuits.
Sweet sorghum leaves and stalks are also useful sources of ethanol, a type bio-fuel.
Here are a few recipes to help you appreciate this versatile and nutritious cereal grain:
Sorghum Cranberry Bread
- 1 1/2 cups grain sorghum flour
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons xanthan gum or clear gelatin
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 3 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
- 4 eggs
- 2 cups applesauce
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
- 3 cups fresh cranberries
- 1 cup chopped walnuts
- Granulated sugar to top
- Directions:Preheat oven to 350° F. Lightly coat loaf pans with nonstick cooking spray. Combine flours, sugar, cinnamon, salt and baking soda. Separate eggs. To egg yolks, add applesauce and buttermilk and beat well. Gradually add dry ingredients to applesauce mixture and beat until just combined. Beat egg whites until stiff, but not dry, and fold into batter. Stir in cranberries and walnuts. Transfer to prepared loaf pans. Top with granulated sugar. Bake 45-55 minutes. Let stand five minutes and remove from pans to cool on rack.
Sorghum Ginger Snaps
- 3/4 cup shortening
- 2 tablespoons sweet rice flour
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 cup molasses
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 3/4 cup sorghum flour
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 cup chickpea flour
- Granulated sugar to coat
- Ingredients:Cream the shortening and sugar. Add the egg and molasses and mix thoroughly. Stir together the sifted sorghum flour, chickpea flour, sweet rice flour, soda, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Stir into the dough. Refrigerate until firm. Form into 1 1/2 inch balls, and roll in granulated sugar. Preheat oven to 350° F and bake on a parchment lined cookie sheet for 12-15 minutes. Makes about five-dozen cookies.
Chocolate Sorghum Buttermilk Cake
- 1/2 cup oil
- 1 1/4 cup sorghum flour*
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
- 1 1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum or clear gelatin
- 1 egg
- 1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 tablespoons cocoa
- Directions: Beat together oil, eggs, vanilla, and buttermilk. Sift dry ingredients together and add. Beat well and add 1/2 cup boiling water. Bake in an 8" square pan at 350° F for 35-40 minutes.
Jaime McLeod is a longtime journalist who has written for a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites, including MTV.com. She enjoys the outdoors, growing and eating organic food, and is interested in all aspects of natural wellness.