It all comes down to sugarcane.
Holiday baking season is officially underway, and that means a few timely staples will once again make their way into your pantry. Before you grab another bottle of molasses, though, it helps to know your options.
When the juice in sugar beets and sugarcane is extracted and refined, a dark, viscous syrup is left behind. That byproduct is molasses, which is mostly used to darken and refine plain granulated sugar (turning it into brown sugar) and in the creation of rum. Molasses is also used as a distinctly flavored sweetener in baking.
Molasses comes in several varieties (unsulphured, sulphured, and blackstrap) that are determined by the sugarcane's age, the amount of sugar that's extracted, and the method of extraction. The key factor differentiating unsulphured and sulfured molasses is sugarcane maturity. Unsulphured, or regular molasses, is extracted from mature sugarcane. Here, the cane juice is clarified and concentrated. Sulphured molasses, on the other hand, is made from sugarcane that hasn't had as much time to mature. As a result, sulfur dioxide is added to preserve the young sugarcane until it's processes.
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Sulfur dioxide slightly alters the molasses' flavor, so if you're looking for something richer (or just want to stay away from preservatives), go for the unsulphured stuff. Fully matured sugarcane yields more raw material, making unsulphured molasses thicker and sweeter.