Sticky Fingers: Sorghum Is a Resurgent Sweet and Savory Crop
“It’s some sort of grain, right?”
For those of you unfamiliar with what sorghum grain is exactly, let’s get you up to speed on this surprisingly prevalent crop, one that is more and more becoming a chef favorite in recipes and cocktails.
First, some factoids:
- October is prime time for harvesting this grain crop, which is is the 5th most important cereal crop in the United States (after wheat, corn, oats and barley) and the 3rd worldwide.
- 90% of the sorghum grown in the U.S. is used to feed livestock, but internationally, more than half of the sorghum produced is used for human consumption. It is used in bread, couscous, porridge and also steamed and eaten as a vegetable.
- Native to Northern Africa, this versatile crop is now grown throughout the world. In the U.S., it made its first appearance around 1750 when Benjamin Franklin made mention of it as usefulness in the manufacture of brooms, but didn’t reach widespread cultivation until the mid 1800s.
- With a spectacular tolerance when facing heat and drought, sorghum became an indispensable crop in the South. When times were lean (which was often), sorghum was reliable. Not only could it provide much needed animal feed with high yields requiring roughly two thirds of the rainfall of comparable grains, it had another highly valued use.
This stuff was sweet.
During times of war (the Civil War, World War I and World War II), the cost of granulated cane sugar skyrocketed. The stalks of sweet sorghum, an inexpensive and hardy crop, produced a sweet syrup when milled and steamed in shallow pans that could be used as a pancake or biscuit topper or as a substitute for sugar when cooking or baking.
Even in times of peace, in poor communities the syrup became a fixture in pantries and at the table.
Over the years, the cost of granulated sugar dropped and other sweeteners like honey became commercially commonplace. The popularity of sorghum as a household sweetener waned.
Although still an extremely important crop, it lacks the familiarity once commonplace here in the States. It is readily recognized as a grain commodity and possibly a sweetener, but is far less likely to be found on grocery store shelves.
At its peak in the 1880s, 24 million gallons of sorghum syrup were produced in the U.S. each year. By 1975, that figure was down to just 400,000 gallons.
But the times, they are a changin’ again. In recent years, the popularity of sorghum in the U.S. as a food product is on the rise. Not as a syrup this time, but sorghum flour as a gluten-free alternative to wheat flour.
Gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and many other grains, has become an increasingly common concern in the American consciousness. Celiac disease, a condition caused by gluten consumption prevents the small intestines from absorbing food properly, is diagnosed more regularly and affects an estimated 1 percent of the population. A gluten-free diet is now also recommended for those combating such varied issues as obesity, migraines and even autism.
And with the rise of star Southern chefs like Charleston restaurant Fig’s Mike Lata and Atlanta dining destination Empire State South’s Hugh Acheson incorporating indigenous ingredients like sorghum into their recipes, sorghum has even become chic.
The sorghum that spent so many years on the breakfast table as a topping for those pancakes has finally found its way back into the American kitchen and hip restaurants.