Molasses & Christmas

Reader Joanna writes:

Can you tell me why it seems like every holiday recipe has molasses in it? I can’t stand the taste of molasses and it seems like it’s everywhere this time of year. I was wondering why and I thought I’d ask!

That’s a great question. The reason is because molasses was once the most commonly used sweetener in America, particularly before 1900 when all sugar here was made from cane (Americans didn’t get on the beet sugar bandwagon until 1890). In those days crystal sugar was commonly available but still fairly expensive stuff. Molasses was nearly as sweet but cost a lot less, so if you were a member of a household of medium-to-modest means, odds are your mother used molasses a lot more often than she used sugar.

Since Christmas is the time of year when most of us pull out the old family recipes that everyone knows and loves, you see a lot of molasses. Great grandma’s gingerbread, pumpkin pie, fruitcake and figgy pudding probably all have molasses in them, which is why the taste is so hard to escape. And while it’s definitely anti-Christmas-y, I can’t think of molasses without thinking of the Great Boston Molasses Disaster. Guess I’m just morbid.

17 thoughts on “Molasses & Christmas”

  1. I must be morid too. Not only did I immediately recall the Boston molasses flood, but I wondered if I’d still taste the molasses if I licked the street.

  2. If Joanna wants a substitute for molasses in recipes like gingerbread, in Louisiana we use sugar cane syrup, Steens is the most common brand. It doesn’t have the bitter undertaste that molasses has but it does have calcium and iron and vitamins.

  3. I enjoy the flavor of molasses in many traditional holiday baked goods, and I think use of molasses also continues in part because people have come to associate the flavor with the season, in the same way as we do the warm spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and clove.

    Somewhere buried deep around here I have my great-aunt’s gingerbread cake recipe that thins the molasses down with boiling water, and adds the baking soda to the hot liquid mixture before adding it all into the dry ingredients. I’ve never seen that technique anywhere else, but it a delicious recipe.

    1. I’m with you, I like the sort of sulphery bite behind molasses sweet. To me that is a nice balance.

    2. Hey there OOTT!

      I’ve employed that technique before with my own grandmother’s icebox cake. It’s pretty neat, but always makes me worry that I’m not blending the baking soda in well enough! Such is life for the uptight.


      – JOe

      1. Can you roust a shovel up and dig up that great-aunt’s recipe, for sharing?

        1. I’ll give that some attention, but ‘m not sure I’ll be able to locate it. I couldn’t find it last time I looked. It came in a jumbled collection of old recipe boxes from my grandmother, that are stashed away in some unmarked plastic storage bin in the garage somewhere with a bunch of other unmarked bins.

          If I were an organized person, my chances of finding it on purpose would be much better.

      2. OOTT. Heh!

        I changed the handle after noticing there was another “Tom” posting here occasionally.

    3. My grandma’s recipe for gingerbread and molasses cookies thins down the molasses with cold coffee. I don’t know if htat is because she though it tasted better, or if that is because she was a Scot and lived through the depression raising a family as a single mother. Whichever… she wasted NOTHING, even old cold coffee.

      1. Being Scottish by heritage, I LOVE stories about penurious Scots. Thanks, Brian!

        – Joe

  4. I’ve been making (and will make this afternoon) a chocolate-coffee-walnut-date-sherry (but no molasses) cake that calls for dissolving baking soda in coffee – hot or cold, not specified. I too am puzzled, but the cake is delicious, so I’ll do it.

  5. Another reason a lot of these recipes were developed to include molasses is that sugar and brown sugar were rationed during World War II, but molasses wasn’t. As a Southerner, I love the stuff!

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