If you’re from anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon, you can likely stop reading right now–chances are you could write your own piece on sweet sorghum, and may even have some growing in your yard at this very moment. If this is the first you’re hearing about this sweet little substitute however, read on for some information on how this type of sorghum could fill the sorely missed absence of a natural sweetener in your diet, and can be produced fully at home.
Sweet Southern Comfort
No, I’m not referring to the Buddy Jewell song from the early 2000s. Sweet sorghum is known across the southeastern portion of the United States as a sweet and nutritious substitute for sugar products. Originating in Africa and Asia, where it is still a dietary staple, sweet sorghum was in wide use across the United States from the mid-19th century until the turn of the 20th, when its popularity declined due to the convenience of granulated sugar.
A cane crop much like its sugar-cane kin, sorghum likes warm soil. Its seeds normally need a soil temperature of around 60 degrees, hence its popularity in the South. This trait also means it is generally planted late, around the middle of May, about 1 inch deep at a spacing of 12 inches apart, with 30 inches between rows. Weeds should be watched and removed with a careful eye, until the sorghum is grown enough to hold its own. About a month and a half after planting, it is often helpful to douse the plants with a high-nitrogen liquid fertilizer. While grain sorghums generally grow to just 5 feet tall, this treatment can help sweet sorghum to reach its full 8-foot potential. Once the weeds are removed and fertilizer sprayed, that’s really all the work you’ll have to do on sorghum until harvest time. Heat- and drought-resistant, the plant is a stalwart grower. You don’t need a large plot; sorghum is self-fertile.
To harvest, wait for the sorghum to reach “milk stage,” when kernels will bleed juice if cut. From here wait another two weeks, then cut the canes at ground level and strip the leaves. Now the fun is just beginning. The canes must be crushed and squeezed through a strainer (cheesecloth works well), generally with the aid of a mill, to make a greenish juice. You then take the juice to your firepit (usually at least 20 gallons’ worth at a time), where it should simmer in a vat for hours, depending on the amount of juice.
You should carefully watch and stir your slurry during this process, and use a strainer to remove the green foamy bits that float to the top. As the syrup gets closer to being finalized, however, less film and brown bubbles will appear. From here, the longer it cooks, the thicker it gets. Do be careful not to undercook the juice, as that can lead to the entire batch going rancid–so a thicker consistency is best. This is more art than science however, and the only way to learn is to do.
Once complete, simply ladle the thick, molasses-like substance into sterilized jars, and your sorghum is ready for storage and consumption (preferably on a biscuit or some pancakes, in this author’s humble opinion). For reference, around 10 gallons of sorghum juice will make roughly a gallon of syrup. Put another way, an acre of land can yield up to 150 gallons of syrup under ideal conditions. Normally, particularly in the beginning, 50 gallons is a more reasonable expectation, which is far and away more than the average household will use in a year. Scale the size of your field accordingly. If you’ve some land and time to spare, this may be the year you give sorghum a try, particularly since the late-breaking cold has pushed back planting times anyway. It could be just what you need to sweeten your treats and Thanksgiving goodies this fall.
A humble homesteader based in an undisclosed location, Lars Drecker splits his time between tending his little slice of self-sustaining heaven, and bothering his neighbors to do his work for him. This is mainly the fault of a debilitating predilection for fishing, hunting, camping and all other things outdoors. When not engaged in any of the above activities, you can normally find him broken down on the side of the road, in some piece of junk he just “fixed-up.”