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The Excellent Sorghum

By dave
April 25, 2016

Sorghum is in the grass family and is closely related to corn. In fact, when it's young it is nearly impossible to differentiate it from corn. If anyone ever tells you they have volunteer corn in their garden, you can sound smart by guessing that it's sorghum.

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Name: Sherry
Northern California
Sunset Zone 17
Charter ATP Member I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Region: Pacific Northwest Seed Starter Region: California Plant Identifier
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wcgypsy
Apr 24, 2016 10:05 PM CST
Yes, indeed. 43 years ago I arrived in Iowa for the first time and was introduced to sorghum on the organic farm of a wonderful older couple. I did not at that time know what sorghum was, but Lowell was cooking it down in a big copper boiler, and oh, the smell! It will forever be in my memory as one of the rites of Fall. I have not had it in a long time and now think I will have to go looking for some....
I could be wrong...
and.....
"maybe I should have kept my mouth shut....."
Name: Claud
Water Valley, Ms (Zone 7b)
Charter ATP Member
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saltmarsh
Apr 25, 2016 1:26 AM CST
My Father cooked sorghum molasses when I was growing up. He cooked his own as well as surrounding farmers crop on the halves. He was fond of saying "A one legged man with a mule could plant more sorghum than everyone in the county could harvest." and he was right about that.

He used a continuous flow box pan to make the molasses rather than the kettle method. If there's any interest, I'll try to explain the method as I remember it. Claud

Name: Cinda
Indiana Zone 5b
Dances with Dirt
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gardengus
Apr 25, 2016 4:47 AM CST
I'm all ears!
Keep believing ,hoping,and loving
all else is just existing.
Name: Donna King
Selmer, TN (Southern West TN) (Zone 7b)
Hummingbirder Garden Ideas: Master Level
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donnabking
Apr 30, 2016 8:33 AM CST
At Sherry in California, I wish you luck in finding some good molasses out there. Many folks want to cut it with corn syrup and call it molasses. We true old timers that grew up around where it was grown and cooked out proper (and I'm not THAT old) 59, but I grew up going to the mills as a child and buying ours still warm & fresh each fall freshly bottled in a quart jar. Pure molasses, never cut back then. VERY thick! Good. Such fun to watch them grinding the cane with mules walking around a circle turning the grinders, catching the juice. Boiling it off. Stirring and skimming the foam. And you are right, it smelled great. Wonderful memories.

Dave, a lot of sorghum used to be grown and processed here in West Tennessee, and we still have a handful of folks here that produce some. I have a fresh pint from the fall, wonderful stuff. Black gold, the flavor is just wonderful. Honey is another wonderful flavor. Corn syrups and pancake syrups cannot compare. Wish I lived near the maple syrup production area. Bet those are wonderful too. Can't say I've ever had any REAL maple syrup. Imagine all I've ever had is a flavored one or some that has been cut with corn syrup. I'd like to have some pure stuff.

Claude, I am in Selmer TN, not too far from you. Probably about 100 miles?? I would love to hear about that method of cooking. All I have ever seen was a vat method.
The Hooterville Hillbilly @ Hummingbird Hill
Name: Sherry
Northern California
Sunset Zone 17
Charter ATP Member I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Region: Pacific Northwest Seed Starter Region: California Plant Identifier
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wcgypsy
Apr 30, 2016 9:23 AM CST
Hahahaha, Donna....very true. We have a very hard time finding anything around here......and one has to watch out for what they're calling Honey now also...corn syrup in everything.

Yes, the ideas of the Fall rituals in the Midwest......syrup tapping in the Northeast...these images still appeal greatly to me and make the passing of our seasons a joy to experience.


I could be wrong...
and.....
"maybe I should have kept my mouth shut....."
Name: Claud
Water Valley, Ms (Zone 7b)
Charter ATP Member
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saltmarsh
May 2, 2016 3:46 AM CST
Sherry and Donna, sorry for the delay on cooking Molasses, but I needed to confirm some suspicions I had about the molasses making. My father died in 1989, but one of his younger brothers is still alive. He's 91 and still sharp as a tack. He and his wife are "Snowbirds". They spend the winter in their condo in Mesa, AZ and the rest the year in Huntley, IL. They got back to Huntley today, so I called him to see if he had helped his father (my grandfather) make molasses. "Oh hell yeah." "The last 3 years before I went in the CCC I ran the mill that made the juice for Po Bill's mill."

"Let's see, I went in the CCC in 1938, so that would have been about 1935 -1937."

We had a nice talk; brought back fond memories for both of us. He is the last one left of seven children, 6 boys and 1 girl. My father was in the middle.

Many of our memories about molasses making were the same, only 20 years apart. They should have been, because the same sorghum mill and pan was used, set up almost the same way. The pan and the mill were stored under my grandparents house (upside down and resting on logs) so 4 men and a boy could roll it out when needed.

So now I'll try to explain the setup for 1937 as well as 1958.

Both my grandfather (Bill from now on) and my father (Claud from now on) were farmers and grew their own sorghum and made molasses; 20 years apart. Both were the only ones in the area that cooked molasses and both had a reputation for making excellent molasses. They also made molasses on the halves for other farmers in the area.

In 1937 Bill was farming on the Sissell Place. Rich Yocona (pronounced YOC-NA) river bottom land which in a couple of years would be covered by the backwaters of Enid Dam (one of many flood control dams installed during that time to help control the springtime flooding of the Mississippi river.

In 1958 Claud was farming on the Murphy Place. Rich bottom land about a mile from the backwaters of Enid Dam and 3 miles (and about 30 feet of water) removed from the Sissell Place.

I don't know the variety of sorghum they grew, but I do remember my father telling me the agriculture experiment station had done work on sorghum years before and released new hybrids every couple of years. Because the hybrids were more productive, most farmers switched to the extension service for their seed. One release proved susceptible to a disease and nearly everyone in this part of the country lost their sorghum crop that year.

The sorghum was planted as soon as the ground had warmed and danger of frost had passed using a mule and a wooden plow called a shovel stock. The shovel stock plow was the most commonly used mule drawn implement. It normally had a 10 inch metal plow bolted to the foot of the stock and could be used to make rows or dig peanuts, potatoes, or sweet potatoes. With another V shaped blade (normally 20 inches wide) called a heel sweep bolted to the rear of the foot the same plow could be used to clear grass from the middle of the row and create a dust mulch which made it harder for weed seed to germinate. With the metal blade removed the foot of the plow made a trench about 2 inches wide and 1 1/2 inches deep for planting.

On new ground sorghum was a good crop because the mule had sense enough to avoid stumps and obstacles and the shovel stock was light enough to be guided with one hand over and around stumps and other obstacles and the sorghum would shade out most of the weeds and grass once it became established.

One person opened the furrow guiding the plow with one hand while planting seed from a pouch with the other hand. Another person followed behind with a hoe covering the seed and stepping on the covered seed.

The mule was trained to respond to verbal commands and could work singly of as a team in pairs. Gee meant move to the right and Haw meant move to the left. A click of your tongue or Get Up would start them moving forward and Whoo or Hold Up would make them stop. Their name was normally included with the command if they were working as a team. If you had a problem and needed to back up, Whoo followed by Back up would get the mule to stop and backup 2 steps; repeat for another 2 steps back. Bill and Tony were the mules I grew up with. I drove them with a disk starting when I was six (I would say try that with your kids today, but around here a lot of six year olds are out on 4 wheelers).

After the sorghum was up and about 6 inches high it was hoed and thinned, much like chopping cotton. This was followed by plowing the middles with a one mule cultivator called a Gee-Whiz. The Spring tooth tines could be adjusted with levers to move dirt from the middle of the row to the top of the row, called hilling up. This had the effect of putting the plant deeper in the soil which helped prevent lodging of the stalks. It also covered any grass missed by the hoeing with dirt smothering it. The crop was cultivated again when the plants were about knee high.

About 2 weeks before the sorghum was ready to harvest, the seed heads were removed. This caused the plant to put more of its energy into the stalk rather than the seed heads.

When the sorghum was ready to harvest, a wand (A hickory limb split down the middle and then both halves were sharpened razor sharp to make a double bladed knife) was used to strip the leaves from the sorghum. Another person followed behind cutting the sorghum at the ground with a machete and windrowing the stalks.

After 2 to 3 days of laying in the sun the sorghum was ready to be loaded on a wagon and moved to the mill.

The sorghum mill was set up in a flat level area and elevated so the juice spout would be about 4 feet above the top of the cooking pan. A pole was attached to the top of the mill and the mule's harness. A single mule walked in a circle around the mill crushing the stalks and squeezing the juice out. To get the juice from the mill to the cooking pan, sorghum stalks were split in half, hollowed out and fastened together; then fastened to the juice spout of the mill allowing the juice to gravity flow down to the cooking pan. As the juice flowed through the hollowed out stalks it acted as a natural filter trapping any dirt and debris. One person fed stalks into the mill staggering the stalks so as not to jam the mill and at the same time keep the juice production fairly uniform. The same person removed the squeezed stalks from the outfeed side.

The cooking pan was about 36 feet long and 5 feet wide with sides about 9 inches high. It had alternating baffles installed about every foot so the juice had to snake its way down from where it entered the pan on one end and exited as finished molasses on the other end.

To understand how the pan worked think of a chimney laid down horizontally with the pan as the top side of the chimney. On the juice end of the pan a 8 inch flange stuck down to trap the heat and on the molasses end of the pan another flange stuck out allowing a regular stove pipe to be attached. Also on the molasses end of the pan in a outside corner was a fitting allowing a pipe with a regular brass faucet to be attached and used to fill cans with the finished molasses.

The ground was cleared and leveled where the pan would go and red clay roofing tiles were used to create side walls and an end wall on the molasses end with the juice end open. Red clay dirt was used as a dry mortar between the layers of tiles.

More red clay dirt was used inside the walls to build up the ground creating a flue. The distance from the ground to the bottom of the juice end of the pan was about 2 feet and level for about 8 feet on that end. From that point the ground gradually rose so the distance from the ground to the bottom of the pan on the molasses end was about 12 inches.

The pan was installed level from one end to the other as well as side to side. Bill's pan was installed out in the open. Claud's pan was installed in a pole shed with a gabled tin roof.

Both used coals from hickory wood to cook the juice.

Long before daylight a fire would be built a few yards away from the cooking pan and allowed to burn into coals. A flat shovel with a long steel handle was used to move the hot coals from the fire to the fire pit. A rake with a long steel handle was used along with the shovel to create a even bed of coals from front of the pan back about 8 feet. More wood would be added to the fire to have a supply of coals as needed.

As soon as a few drops of water dropped into the pan danced, the mill started squeezing and the juice started flowing.

Now this is where the difference between cooking in a kettle (batch) and continuous cooking comes into play. To make molasses you have to remove a lot of water from the juice while the heat slowly caramelizes the sugar. If it gets too hot during this process, it will quickly burn and ruin the entire batch.

This pan design is very forgiving. The heat from the coals is far enough away from the pan to keep from burning the molasses. The fire pit produces even heat one end of the pan to the other. The only thing used to control the heat of the pan is how fast juice runs into the pan. As the juice runs into the pan and starts boiling, the cook starts removing the foam as it forms and watches the juice cook, adds more coals to keep them going, adds more wood to the fire to keep making coals, monitors the cooking juice as it starts changing to syrup and from syrup to molasses.

If too much juice is entering the pan so it stops boiling, the cook says Whoo; the mule stops; shortly the juice will stop. In the meantime the cook adds more coals to the fire to bring the heat back up and uses a special hoe (it's made to fit between the baffles) to push the juice back enough to come to a boil and start cooking again. The cook says Get Up; the mule starts making his circle and the juice starts flowing. Nothing's burned and life goes on.

So much for the juice end of the pan. On the molasses end of the pan what the cook is looking for is the syrup to start making frog eyes indicating water has been removed and the molasses are cooked.

Pallets of new cans are filled with molasses - Watch Out - That's Hot- lids installed and set aside to cool. As they cool the lids will pop down indicating they are canned. Then the side of the can is wiped with a damp cloth and labels installed.

This setup will produce 400 gallons of molasses day in and day out. But it's a lot of work. Claud
Name: Thomas
Deep East Texas (Zone 8a)
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Thomas75
May 15, 2016 1:10 AM CST
Outstanding and thank you for sharing, this brings to mind a million great memories. Thank You!
Thomas75

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