Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Sorghum

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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. 

In her book, Sorghum's Savor, Ronni Lundy spools out reveries from her youth through today - a life through spoonfuls of sweet sorghum syrup, nearly - that recount her and her chef colleagues' fondest memories of the stuff. It is an affection that is partly a nod to local culture and part deep-seated taste memory. But it is also admiration for the unique quality of sorghum syrup, the subtle variations from crop to crop, batch to batch, that give it the same sort of studied appeal that oenophiles enjoy when comparing different wine vintages. 

Dig in and maybe sorghum will become your new favorite thing, too.

A Brief History of Sorghum

The first samples of sorghum were found at an archaeological site in Nabta Playa that dates back eight thousand years. Sorghum cultivation began about 3,000 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. 

Sorghum rose in popularity around the time of the Civil War. Sweet sorghum syrup provided an alternative to the slave dependent sugar crops of the south. Because it can be grown in temperate climates, sorghum provided a localized source of sweetener that could be grown across the country, a feature that was critical during the war when supply lines were often cut off. 

Sorghum, however, cannot be readily processed into pourable sugar crystals. So, it was never able to push cane and beet sugar, which are easily granulated, off of market shelves. But sorghum syrup remains important in Southern communities where it plays an important role in the local cuisine and has a nostalgic appeal for many eaters. 

Sorghum also saw a surge in popularity during Prohibition. Unlike other grains that had to be sourced in quantity and transported to the site, sorghum could be grown, pressed and distilled on the moonshiner's property away from prying eyes. 

Today, sorghum is gaining an audience as interest in unique grains grows. The grain can be eaten whole or processed into flakes and flour or popped, like popcorn. Sorghum is also gluten-free and provides another option for eaters who are sensitive to such proteins. 

Factual Nibbles 

  • 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.

Sorghum Cultivation 

There are three main types of sorghum (Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench) - grain, forage and sweet. Grain sorghum grows to about five feet tall and is used for livestock feed, biofuels, pet food and for human consumption. Forage sorghum grows six to 12 feet tall and produces more dry matter tonnage than grain sorghum. Because of its coarse stem, it's primarily used for silage. Sweet sorghum has a sweet, juicy stalk. It grows to be six to nine feet tall. It is harvested for its juice before the mature plant forms clusters of grain. Broom corn (Sorghum vulgarevar. technicum) is a variety of sorghum that is grown to make whisk brooms. 

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 here are used mainly for livestock feed and ethanol production. 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. 

A small percentage of planted varieties are sweet sorghum, grown for its sweet, juicy stalks rather than the plant's grain. 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: to 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. The stalks are run through a roller system, which extracts the juice. It is then filtered to remove impurities. The juice is boiled down for table syrup or can be fermented and distilled for the production of alcoholic beverages or biofuels. 

Environmental Impact of Growing 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. It is 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. 

Sorghum is not genetically modified. However, some growers choose to douse the crops with Round Up 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. 

Sorghum Characteristics 

In the field, the plants look very similar to corn, with thin, often tall, stalks and five to eight long, weeping leaves. The plant forms a seed head, which flowers and then forms the grain. As the grain matures it changes from light green to white, tan, bronze or red depending on the variety. 

Nutrition and Effects on the Body 

One tablespoon of sorghum syrup supplies all of 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 naturally high in fiber. Whole grain sorghum has 6.7 grams of total dietary fiber and 3.36 milligrams of iron per 100 grams of grain. Sorghum is rich in antioxidants, which are believed to help lower the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and some neurological diseases.

What to Do with Sorghum and How to Cook It

Grain 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's 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. 

Whole grain - Sorghum can be boiled and served like rice or quinoa (see note below). 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. 

Sweet Sorghum Syrup

Sorghum syrup can be hard to find outside of the southern US. 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. 

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. 

Sorghum syrup can also be used to make alcoholic beverages. As producers search for gluten-free beer options, sorghum brews are hitting the shelves. Sorghum can be used to make moonshine and, as previously noted, was highly valued for this aspect during Prohibition. Maotai, the fiery Chinese liquor served at Chinese state banquets, is distilled from fermented sorghum. 

How to Store Sorghum

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. 

Recipe: Curried Sorghum Salad

Makes 4-6 servings

As noted above, you can boil sorghum grain and serve it as you would rice or quinoa. I find the kernels, though, to be too toothsome to enjoy alone. They're a bit like wheat berries in their texture - another grain that I love to add to recipes but wouldn't serve all on its own. I prefer to cut sorghum with other ingredients so that the grain's distinctive chew adds a layer of texture, but isn't the whole show. Here, I've added apples and celery but you could also include chicken or shrimp for a more substantial dish. 

This recipe is a variation on "Coronation Chicken," the curried salad recipe that was created to celebrate the crowning of Queen Elizabeth. Because how else do you mark such a regal occasion than with a recipe that was destined to become a deli counter staple? 

Ingredients: 

1 cup whole sorghum grain

Salt and pepper

½ cup plain yogurt (preferably whole milk yogurt)

2 teaspoons curry powder (or more, to taste)

1 teaspoon honey

2 scallions, finely diced

1 apple, cored and diced

2 stalks celery, diced

2 tablespoons raisins

Minced cilantro (optional) 

Method: 

Boil sorghum in a quart of salted water until tender, about an hour. Drain, rinse and drain again. 

In a medium bowl, whisk together the yogurt, curry, honey and a pinch each of salt and pepper. Add the drained sorghum, apple, celery and raisins and stir to combine. Garnish with cilantro, if using, and serve.