What's the Difference Between Sulphured and Unsulphured Molasses?

And what about light, dark, and blackstrap molasses? 

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Molasses is a staple in every Southern kitchen. We use it to bring that distinct, sweet and smoky flavor to anything from baked goods to barbeque. But a quick scan down the baking aisle will confirm that there's no one type of molasses. You'll find jars labeled with everything from sulphured to unsulphured or light to dark or robust to mild...the list goes on.

So, what's the difference between sulphured and unsulphured molasses? And what about light, dark, and blackstrap molasses? Here you'll learn everything you need to know before you face the grocery shelves.

What Is Molasses, Exactly?

Before diving into the different types of molasses, let's define the sticky, sweet substance. The process for making molasses goes like this: First, sugar cane or sugar beets are crushed, revealing the sweet juices inside. Those juices are then boiled until sugar crystals form. That thick, brown syrup left behind? That's molasses.

This process of boiling the juices to extract the sugar crystals may be repeated several times, resulting in different types of molasses.

pouring molasses into bowl of sugar
Portland Press Herald/Contributor/Getty Images

Types of Molasses

There are two main types of molasses: sulphured and unsulphured. And to make things even more confusing, molasses also comes in three grades: light, dark, and blackstrap. The difference between these types comes down to the maturity of the sugar cane or sugar beet, the amount of sugar extracted through the boiling process, and the extraction method.

Sulphured Molasses

Sulphured molasses is made from young, green sugar cane that has not yet reached maturity. It is treated with sulphur dioxide as a method of preserving the sugar cane until it's ready to process. Because of this, some describe the flavor of sulphured molasses as having chemical notes.

Unsulphured Molasses

As you can probably guess, unsulphured molasses is made from ripe sugar cane, and doesn't require any sulphur dioxide to preserve it. In general, unsulphured molasses is considered to be the more "pure," cleaner tasting molasses, which is why you'll find most commercial molasses is unsulphured.

Light, Dark, and Blackstrap Molasses

In addition to the sulphured vs. unsulphured categorization, molasses is also available in three different colors, ranging from lightest to darkest. The color of molasses all comes down to the amount of processing done to the sugar.

Light, mild, or baking molasses ($11; Amazon) is what you get after the first boiling process. It's the sweetest of all types of molasses, because it has the most sugar left in it. It's most commonly used for desserts like molasses cookies, cakes, and gingerbread.

When you boil the molasses a second time (meaning you've extracted even more sugar), you get what's known as dark, full, or robust molasses ($11; Amazon). It's darker, thicker, and slightly more bitter than its lighter counterpart, making it ideal for savory dishes like Boston baked beans or barbeque.

Finally, blackstrap molasses ($11; Amazon) is what you get when you boil molasses three times over — it's the darkest, and most bitter type of molasses. You might find some savory dishes that call for blackstrap molasses, but it's most commonly used in commercial animal feed. However, it does boast some health benefits: Not only does it have the least amount of sugar, but it's also naturally high in iron, calcium, and other minerals. It is even said to help with chronic nose bleeds.

Substitutes for Molasses

Molasses is easy to find both online and at most supermarkets, but in the case that you find yourself without it, there are some substitutes that will mimic its distinct flavor. Dark corn syrup is the best substitute for molasses in baking, but you can achieve similar results using honey, maple syrup, and packed brown sugar.

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