It’s no mystery that wheat has dominated the grain game (at least in the West) for centuries now, but there are other grains that have made the scene. Rice, corn, oats, and barley have been global mainstays as well. Recent culinary adventures have brought “ancient” grains into modern times, popularizing quasi-grains like amaranth and quinoa as well as farro, kamut, and millet.
Another ancient grain that’s making the show is sorghum. Sorghum dates back some 4,000 years, originating in Africa and—no great surprise—becoming popular in the Deep South of the United States. Though it isn’t regarded with quite the reverence of grits, it has featured in the south for centuries now, mostly as a syrup and dating back to the mid-1800s.
But, there is more to sorghum, and it is making a huge comeback of late, especially with that crowd looking to be self-reliant. Sorghum grows as easily as corn and offers a simple way to get both a healthy whole grain and a natural sweetener. Heck, there are even varieties that make knockout brooms.
Source: Esoteric Agriculture/Youtube
Essentially, each strain of sorghum comes with one of three useful qualities. Sweet sorghum has a juicy cane that is ideal for making syrup. Grain sorghum, frequently called milo, is good for milling as flour, popping like popcorn, and using it as a whole grain. Broom corn sorghum holds onto its seeds tightly and can be used to make brooms and in decorative arrangements.
By and large, sorghum looks and grows similarly to corn. It is a type of grass that can, depending on the variety, reach somewhere between five and ten feet tall. It has big leaves and a loose cluster of kernels. Sorghum performs best in very warm weather, such as the Southeast where temperatures hit the 90s regularly.
Sorghum shouldn’t be planted until the summer truly sets in. That might be as late as early June when temperatures don’t dip below 60 F, and it takes about three or four months to reach maturity. In other words, it won’t work as a great crop in the Northern USA, but for those of us in USDA Zone 6 and warmer, we’ve got the weather to work with.
Sorghum can be treated a lot like flint corn. It should be sown about four inches apart and then thinned to roughly eight inches as the seedlings developed. Weeds should be kept at bay while the plants are young, but they’ll dominate the space after a few weeks. Then, it is left to reach maturity, with grain varieties drying and sweet varieties harvested a couple of weeks after the “milk” stage.
For sweet sorghum, the canes of the plants must be harvested and processed. The canes are pressed to extract the juice from within them. This can be done by chopping them into manageable pieces and putting them in a cider press. Then, the juice is boiled at until it reaches the right density, “stringing” as the ladle or spoon is removed from it.
With grain sorghum, the plant heads are harvested, allowed to dry thoroughly, and then beaten to separate the grain from the panicles. Ideally, the moisture level of the seeds should be 15% before being stored in the ventilated bags. The kernels can be milled into flour (sorghum pancakes are popular), or they can be cooked whole like brown rice or popped like popcorn and amaranth.
In short, sorghum is nothing for modern chefs to be afraid of. It’s nothing for home-growers to shy away from. It is, in fact, a crop that is drought-tolerant, soil-versatile, and multi-purpose. It’s the type of food that ought to make a big splash on the scene. Turns out, it is.
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