Raising Sorghum Cane to Make Sorghum Syrup

Last fall, my husband and I were invited to watch a Mennonite family make their fall batch of sorghum syrup. We have enjoyed exploring the Kentucky countryside and had been watching the fields of sorghum cane grow since they were planted in the spring. While there are many varieties of sorghum, some for syrup, some for silage to feed the animals, and some for grain to be milled for a gluten-free flour, this family was growing sorghum for syrup and animal feed.

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The fields were gorgeous with their tall stalks, topped by a sea of golden bushy seed tassels. Up close, one can quickly see why sorghum is in the same grass family as corn, oats, and wheat; they all grow in the same way with their long stems, broad leaves, and seed tassels full of kernels of millable grain.

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Sorghum cane usually grows from six to ten feet tall and is harvested in September and October. It is very heat tolerant which may explain why it is often the last grass plant standing in local fields and why it is grown mostly in the Southeast.

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To harvest the cane, farmers strip off the leaves and remove the seed tassels. Next, the stalks are cut down as close to the ground as possible because that’s where most of the juice is found. The stalks are stacked on carts, and on this farm, the carts are pulled by horses to the grinding shed.

We had been to this farm many times to buy eggs and vegetables but had never been down this lane which goes to the sorghum processing shed. The farmer told us to look for the tall smokestack, and we’d find the family there boiling the syrup

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The open shed on the right is where the grinder is located. Here, the sorghum stalks are fed into a set of rollers which presses the juice into a collection basin.

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If you have ever been to a historical demonstration of sorghum pressing, you may have seen this same process, only back in the day, a mule was used to provide the energy to rotate the gears which turned the rollers. The farmer fed the cane into the rollers, and the sorghum juice was pressed into a barrel. I found this image online from a publication called Bittersweet.

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In Nashville, you can see a live demonstration of this process at the Music and Molasses Arts and Crafts Festival held annually at the Tennessee Agricultural Museum in October.

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On the Mennonite farm, a conveyor belt removes the leftover stalks and drops them into another horse-drawn cart

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where the sweet tasting scraps are fed to the horses.

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There is beauty in the simplicity of this process.

Further down the road, we came to the cooking shed where the thin green sorghum juice is cooked down to a thick syrup.

The uncooked juice is stored in the white tank located on the shelf of on the left. The gray tank, on the right, is the boiler where the steam is created that is used to cook down the syrup in the cooking trays located inside that white door.
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On the backside of this building, you can see the boiler on top of the wood-burning furnace. The younger generation of boys is tasked with keeping the fires stoked while the older men tend to the cooking inside.
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The steam, much hotter than boiling water, from the boiler, travels through pipes to the cooking room where it runs under a 75-foot maze of metal cooking trays.
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Ten gallons of juice will render one gallon of syrup. The steam in the room is created by the nine gallons of water boiled out of the juice. The steam is so thick you can barely see across the room. The sorghum syrup starts out as a thin neon-green liquid loaded with not so tasty chlorophyll. The farmer uses a hoe-like tool to skim off the chlorophyll and other impurities on the liquid’s surface, as it boils up from the juice.
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By the time the syrup reaches the end of the maze, it is ready to be filtered and jarred. Here the farmer scrapes the last bit of sweet foam off the syrup so there won’t be white streaks in the jar.

An old farmer I met in Nashville told me when he was growing up, there was a commercial sorghum mill in Crossville, and on the day they were cooking the syrup, all the mothers in town would send their kids to the mill with steel cups to scavenge the foam and bring it home. The mothers would use this gleaned sweetener to make cakes and biscuits. He said the foamy syrup was tasty and free!
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The syrup drips through the filter into a barrel and from there is poured into jars of all sizes. It is sold in stores around the county.
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Sorghum is enjoying quite a renaissance lately. I see it frequently listed on restaurant menus. You can use it in almost any recipe that calls for honey, molasses, corn syrup, or pure maple syrup. That includes both sweet and savory dishes. It is high in iron, potassium, and calcium and is 100% natural with no chemical additives.

As we were getting ready to leave the farm, a young boy offered me a sorghum seed tassel. He had been picking off the kernels and eating them while we toured. I asked his dad if the seeds were good to eat. He told me, “Don’t eat them, PLANT them,” and he gave me a seed tassel. He instructed me to plant one red seed every six inches in the spring.
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Our favorite way to enjoy sorghum is mixed with butter and spread on a biscuit! Check out my biscuit recipe here.

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Related Posts on Commercial Farming:

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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

The Biscuit King

A few weeks ago our Mennonite friends in Kentucky invited us to watch them make sweet sorghum syrup. Sorghum is similar to molasses but has a much earthier taste with a touch of sourness. It can be used cup for cup in any recipe calling for molasses, honey, or corn syrup. Having said all that, in the South, if you give a friend some sorghum, they’re going to want a biscuit, a light, crunchy biscuit.

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I anointed my husband, the Southerner, the biscuit maker, knowing he had watched his mother make biscuits for years. Unfortunately, they weren’t quite as easy to make as he remembered. The first batch was fraught with problems: they were dry and hard, much like hockey pucks. From the rolling hills and gorgeous lakes of KY, I went online and begged our Facebook friends to tell us what went wrong. Their suggestions poured in. Futzing around in the kitchen, with the goal of making a good biscuit, became our vacation vocation.

Making biscuits was the first food I learned to cook in Home Ec at Dartmouth Middle School in 1968. Our classroom consisted of four brand spankin’ new kitchens lined up in a row along the wall. Our gray-haired teacher, Ms. Harriman, rarely left her chair, but her desk was like a pulpit, and we girls did as instructed while she sat and taught. Ms. Harriman did not miss a thing, and you did not want to be the one to make her get-out-of-her-chair.  Strict as she was, we had fun learning to measure ingredients properly and make uncomplicated meals. Home Ec, with cooking classes one semester and sewing lessons the next, quickly became my favorite class.

Thinking back, I’m almost positive you couldn’t buy the light, silky, self-rising flour required for our biscuit recipe in Massachusetts back in the 1960’s. To make “quick” breads like these biscuits, we used a sifter to combine the all-purpose flour, salt, and baking powder. White Lily Flour, a Southern kitchen staple, is an even lighter version of all-purpose, or “plain” flour, as it was known in the South. It is milled from soft winter wheat that has a lower protein and gluten content than the hard wheat milled for all-purpose flour. If you don’t have any self-rising flour, you could substitute 1 cup of all-purpose flour, 1½ teaspoons of baking powder and ½ teaspoon of salt.  Additionally, for the fat in biscuit recipes, you could use either shortening, butter, or lard. I haven’t tried cooking with lard yet, but I’ve been told it makes the best biscuits and pie crusts. In a pinch, if you are out of buttermilk you could mix 1 cup of milk with one tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice and let it stand for about 5 minutes. The sour mixture that results is what gives buttermilk the tangy taste we love for baking. Did you know that traditional  “butter” milk was the thin residual liquid left over after butter was churned from milk? The buttermilk we buy today is cultured and has been fermented and pasteurized.

Ingredients:

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2 cups self-rising flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1⁄3 cup all-vegetable shortening, lard, or butter, chilled
1 cup buttermilk

Instructions:
1) Preheat oven to 500º
2) Lightly flour a large baking sheet. You can use the self-rising flour for this.
3) Mix together flour, salt, and shortening with a pastry cutter, whisk, or two knives.

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4) Add buttermilk and mix with a fork until dough leaves the sides of the bowl. Do not overwork the dough. The airiness in a biscuit is created by the holes left when shortening flecks melt and create pockets of steam. If you overmix the dough, you’ll lose those air pockets. The dough will be sticky.

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5) Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface or a sheet of parchment paper, for easy cleanup.

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6) Using floured hands, gently shape the dough into a disc. The way this delicately soft mound of dough feels in your hands is heavenly.

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7) Flour the rolling pin and gently roll out the dough until it is ¾ inch thick. Alternatively, you could press the dough out with your fingertips.

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8) Dust the edges of either a 2-inch or 3-inch biscuit cutter with flour and cut your biscuits. Place on a floured baking sheet. A 2-inch cutter will yield 16 biscuits, and a 3-inch cutter will yield 12.

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9) If you want the biscuits to have soft sides, arrange them on a baking sheet, so their sides touch. If you want crunchy sides, arrange them about one inch apart. At this point, you could put the pan of uncooked biscuits in the freezer to freeze. Once frozen, put the biscuits in a freezer bag until ready to bake.

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10) Bake at 500º for 5 minutes and then turn the oven off.  Without opening the oven door (and letting out 20% of the oven’s heat) set your timer for 3 minutes. When done, the biscuits should be a light golden brown. If not, give them another minute or two more to bake.

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A Southern Treat:

Mix together a pat of butter and a heaping tablespoon of sorghum syrup. Spread mixture over warm biscuits.

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The Biscuit King:

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P.S. Special thanks to those who offered baking tips: Lou Ann, Robin, Anne, Libba, Stephanie, Terry, Susan, Holly M, Holly W, Mary Sue, Barbara, and Ms. H.

Toppings that go well on biscuit
How to Make Grape Jelly (and grow the grapes)
How to Make Crab Apple Jelly (and grow the crab apples)
How to Make Oven-Roasted Strawberry and Rosemary Jam (and grow the strawberries)
Raising Sorghum Cane to Make Sorghum Syrup

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© 2014 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.