Real Food Encyclopedia | Sorghum
You may have never heard of sorghum, but you will soon. Like kale and quinoa, this ancient grain is about to have its moment. There’s a lot to love about it. Sorghum is nutritious and easy to grow. It’s versatile. You can find bags of the grain in natural markets. Flakes and puffs are increasingly turning up in cereals and granola bars, and the syrup has a growing cult following.
Dig in and maybe sorghum will become your new favorite thing, too.
Fun Facts about Sorghum:
- Like corn, sorghum is a grass.
- Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) comes from the Latin name “Syrucum (granum)” which means “grain of Syria” — even though it originated in Africa.
- Sorghum syrup is often referred to as “molasses” though it is entirely different from that byproduct of the sugar-making process.
- Broom corn (Sorghum vulgare var. technicum) is a variety of sorghum that is grown to make whisk brooms.
What to Look for When Buying Sorghum
Sorghum is sold in multiple ways — from “grain” sorghum (used much like any other grain) to sweet sorghum syrup, used like maple syrup or molasses. More on what to do with each type below.
As the grain matures it changes from light green to white, tan, bronze or red depending on the variety — if you’re lucky, you may be able to find any one of these types of sorghum grain.
Sorghum syrup can be hard to find outside of the southern United States. If you’re passing through, pick some up. You can also find it online. When buying syrup, look for an indication on the label that the product is 100 percent sorghum and has not been diluted with less flavorful corn syrup. Sorghum syrup will have a color that ranges from light brown to deep amber. The flavor is sweet but nuanced with a slight tang to its finish.
Sustainability of Sorghum
Sorghum is a workhorse that gets down to business without much fuss. It is among the most efficient water users — so drought-tolerant that it thrives in areas of Africa, Asia and the continental US where other crops, such as corn and wheat, would fail. Sorghum is also a beneficial rotation crop, enriching and renewing soil fertility. It is naturally pest resistant so it does not require a high level of chemical inputs. Sorghum’s low resource needs makes it suitable for most climates, making it a viable local food source in a wide range of environments.
Pesticides and Sorghum
Sorghum is not genetically modified. However, some growers choose to spray the crops with Roundup (aka glyphosate) before harvest to kill the crop and hasten drying. Look for organic sorghum syrup and grain to avoid sorghum products that have been sprayed with the herbicide.
In the US, harvest dates range from the end of August to the beginning of December, depending on the weather and location. Grain sorghum is harvested with a combine and then dried for storage.
Sweet sorghum is harvested in the late summer to early fall when the cane is at its optimum sweetness. Although seasoned sorghum farmers often rely on their experience with their crops to determine the time to reap, many use a Brix meter to gauge the sugar level scientifically. Growers seek the narrow window when the crop has reached peak sweetness: too soon and it won’t be as sweet; too long and the flavor can become bitter and the plant starchy. Sorghum cane is perishable and is often pressed right in the field in the name of efficiency and freshness.
Sorghum and Geography
The first samples of sorghum were found at an archaeological site in Nabta Playa that dates back eight thousand years. Sorghum cultivation began about 3000 BCE in northern and eastern Africa, in Ethiopia and Sudan. From there, sorghum moved throughout all of Africa, where it remains an important cereal grain. Sorghum made its way to India during the ﬁrst millennium BCE. It was taken as food on ships, and then was disbursed along the silk trade routes.
The grain arrived in North America on slave trade ships. Ben Franklin gave us our first recorded mention of sorghum: He wrote about a certain variety of sorghum used for making brooms.
Today, sorghum is the ﬁfth most important cereal crop in the world. It is naturally drought tolerant and can be used as food, feed and fuel. In Africa and parts of Asia, sorghum is primarily a human food product. Nigeria, Sudan, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso account for nearly 70 percent of the sorghum grown in Africa. In the United States, the “Sorghum Belt” stretches from South Dakota to Southern Texas. The varieties grown in the US are used mainly for livestock feed and ethanol production.
Storing Sorghum Syrup and Grain
Store sorghum syrup as you would honey. If it begins to crystallize, it can be gently reheated in a pan of warm water to re-liquify but will not always respond. Crystallized syrup can still be used in recipes where it will dissolve, such as in marinades and dressings.
Sorghum grain should be stored in a cool, dark place, preferably in a jar or container with a tight-fitting lid. When stored properly, the whole kernel will keep for several years.
Cooked sorghum grain can be kept in the refrigerator for up to seven days in a closed container. You also can freeze prepared sorghum and reheat easily for quick meals and convenience.
You can store sorghum flour in plastic freezer bags or in air-tight glass or metal containers that are moisture and vapor-proof. Keep the flour in a cool, dry, dark place if it will be used within a few months. Keep it in a refrigerator or freezer for longer storage.
Cooking with Sorghum
Sorghum is enjoyed in many cuisines around the world. In the Middle East, sorghum is milled and made into ﬂatbread and the small, bead-shaped pasta, couscous. In Bangladesh it is boiled like rice to produce porridge-y kichuri. In Honduras, sorghum tortillas are popular. The Ethiopian ﬂatbread injera can be made from sorghum, teff or a combination of the two grains. Here are some ways you can enjoy sorghum grain:
- Whole grain: Sorghum can be boiled and served like rice or quinoa. Unlike other grains, which need to be hulled to be digested, sorghum has an edible hull so more of its nutrients stay intact.
- Pearled: Still, some eaters prefer a more tender grain and opt for sorghum that has had its outside hull removed. “Pearled” sorghum is softer to the tooth but packs less nutrition.
- Sorghum bran: The outer part of the kernel, the bran, is sometimes removed and milled into a powder that is enjoyed for its antioxidant properties.
- Popped: You can pop sorghum kernels like a smaller kernel version of popcorn.
- Flour: Sorghum is gluten-free and its flour can be substituted for wheat ﬂour in a variety of baked goods.
- Flaked sorghum: This is a precooked and processed ingredient that can be found in baked goods, cereals, granola mixes and bars.
- Black sorghum: Texas A&M AgriLife Research has developed a hybrid sorghum with a black hull, the result of high concentrations of the antioxidants anthocyanins.
Sorghum syrup has a wide range of uses. Use it as a substitute in any recipe that calls for honey, maple syrup or molasses to enjoy its unique flavor. Try it in marinades, dressings, cocktails and drizzled on roasted vegetables. Mix up a spread called “Gravy Horse,” a mash of butter and sorghum syrup, to use as a dip for biscuits, corn bread and more.
One tablespoon of sorghum syrup supplies all the average adult’s daily potassium needs. It’s also high in antioxidants, contains 300 milligrams of protein, 30 milligrams of calcium, 20 milligrams of magnesium and 11 milligrams of phosphorus.
Sorghum grain is a rich source of protein (approximately 15 percent of its weight). It is also high in fiber and iron. Sorghum is rich in antioxidants, which are believed to help lower the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and some neurological diseases.