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The Six Degrees Between Cane Syrup and Sorghum Syrup

 What is the difference between sorghum and cane syrup?

 Sorghum and sugar cane have some similarities and differences. Their syrups are quite different.

Sorghum and sugar cane are both technically grasses. Sugar cane looks much like bamboo and is probably descended from a wild plant that was native to New Guinea. It is filled with as much as 90 percent juice, of which a significant portion is sucrose (common table sugar), with a small amount of the sugars dextrose and fructose.

Sorghum is native to Africa, and was probably cultivated as long as 5,000 to 6,000 years ago in what is now Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is still grown in Africa and India for food, but in other parts of the world, it is grown primarily as animal feed. Some variants of sorghum, sometimes called sorgo or Chinese sugar cane, contain large amounts of sap, which is processed in much the same way as sugar cane.

The primary difference between the juice of sugar cane and the sap of sorghum is the percentage of sucrose, dextrose, and fructose they contain, and the properties of these sugars. Sucrose takes the lead in sugar cane and crystallizes easily. In order to make cane syrup, cane juice goes through a lengthy refining process that produces sugar crystals and molasses. Molasses is not what you get when you buy cane syrup, however.

For that, the sugar is heated and/or treated with an acid to turn the sucrose into dextrose and fructose, which are not inclined to crystallize. This process is called inversion, and creates what is known as an invert sugar syrup, which will keep as a liquid for years. In the market, it is called golden syrup, and has a mild flavor that can be attributed to the inversion process. Molasses in its various strengths has a much more assertive flavor.

In sorghum, most of the sugar in the sap is already dextrose and fructose, so producers actually have a hard time getting it to solidify. (Sorghum sap contains a bit of another sugar, dextrin, that can be used to help it set up solidly.) But before it gets to that stage, the refining process is halted when a dark brown, sticky syrup is produced. This sorghum syrup has a much stronger flavor than cane syrup, much like that of molasses.

One-hundred years ago and earlier, sorghum syrup was produced in large quantity in this country as an inexpensive substitute to maple syrup. Cane syrup has long been popular in Britain, but only has a slowly growing toehold in the cooking market here.

(Perhaps it is unappealing to use the word toehold in a sentence relating to food. We apologize.)

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