Is sorghum syrup bitter?

Sorghum syrup, also known as sorghum molasses, is a natural sweetener made by boiling down the juice extracted from sweet sorghum stalks. Compared to other common syrups like maple syrup and corn syrup, sorghum syrup has a unique flavor profile that some describe as bitter while others find it pleasantly sweet. So what determines if sorghum syrup tastes bitter or not? Let’s take a closer look at the factors influencing sorghum syrup’s taste.

What gives sorghum syrup its flavor?

The components contributing to sorghum syrup’s flavor include:

  • Sugars – Sorghum syrup gets its sweetness primarily from sugars like sucrose, glucose, and fructose naturally present in sweet sorghum juice. The sugar composition affects the sweetness and texture of the syrup.
  • Tannins – Tannins are naturally occurring polyphenolic compounds found in the sorghum plant. Higher tannin content can impart a bitter, astringent taste.
  • Organic acids – Compounds like malic acid, citric acid, and tartaric acid impart a tart, acidic taste.
  • Amino acids – Small amounts of umami-tasting amino acids like glutamate add subtle savory notes.
  • Phenolic compounds – Antioxidant phenolic compounds like flavonoids and anthocyanins influence color and aroma.
  • Minerals – Minerals like iron, magnesium, and calcium also affect the flavor.
  • Processing methods – Steps like juicing, filtering, boiling down, and canning impact the final syrup flavor.

The complex interplay between these components determines the overall flavor profile of sorghum syrup, ranging from mellow and smooth to bold and intense. The syrup can take on vastly different characteristics based on the sorghum variety, growing conditions, harvest methods, and processing techniques.

What makes sorghum syrup taste bitter?

There are a few key reasons why some sorghum syrups come out tasting bitter while others have a pleasant, mild sweetness:

  • Tannin content – Sorghum varieties with higher levels of tannins tend to produce more bitter syrups. Tannins give the stalks and leaves of sorghum a bitter taste to deter pests. Consequently, the extracted juice and syrup also take on some bitterness.
  • Growing conditions – Environmental factors like low soil nitrogen levels, drought stress, and pest attacks prompt the sorghum plant to produce more tannins and phenols, increasing bitterness. Conversely, ideal growing conditions result in lower tannin levels.
  • Harvest timing – Sorghum stalks become progressively more bitter as they mature. Syrup made from late-harvested sorghum is more likely to taste bitter.
  • Juicing methods – Crushing and pressing methods that macerate sorghum leaves and stems release more tannins compared to methods focused solely on juicing the stalks.
  • Boiling and canning – Extended high heat boiling denatures proteins that bind tannins, releasing more bitterness into the syrup. Canning also degrades tannin-binding proteins.
  • Storage conditions – Over time, chemical reactions can cause sorghum syrup to develop more bitter notes during storage.

Producers must carefully select low-tannin sorghum varieties, optimize growing and harvest timing, employ gentler juicing, and use minimal boiling and canning to yield a mild, sweet syrup free of bitterness and astringency.

How much bitterness is normal in sorghum syrup?

A slight bitterness is normal in most sorghum syrups, though the intensity can range hugely between different producers and batches. Here are some guidelines on bitter levels:

  • No bitterness – High-end, gourmet syrups made from special low-tannin sorghum varieties under ideal conditions may have zero bitterness.
  • Very subtle bitterness – Well-made syrups will have barely perceptible background bitterness when tasted side-by-side with pure sugar syrup.
  • Mild bitterness – More pronounced yet not unpleasant bitterness is common among small batch producers.
  • Moderate bitterness – Commercially made conventional sorghum syrups tend to have moderate bitterness that balances the sweetness.
  • Harsh bitterness – Defective syrups with excessive tannins or overcooking may be too bitter for pleasurable consumption.

In syrups with just a hint of bitterness, the subtle astringent edge serves to cut through and balance the syrup’s sweetness. However, bitterness beyond subtle levels is generally considered a defect.

How to reduce bitterness in sorghum syrup

For syrup makers and consumers who find some sorghum syrups unpalatably bitter, here are a few tips to help mellow the bitterness:

  • Start with a sweet, low-tannin sorghum variety like Dale, M81E, and Topper 76-6.
  • Optimize growing conditions with proper fertilization and pest control to minimize tannin production.
  • Harvest earlier when stalks are juiciest and lowest in tannins.
  • Gently crush stalks and employ a press that only extracts juice, without macerating leaves and shoots.
  • Use lower cooking temperatures and shorter boiling times for the juice concentrate.
  • Skip canning and store syrup in the refrigerator to prevent further bitterness.
  • Blend a small portion of bitter syrup into pancake syrup or other foods to mask bitterness.
  • Balance bitterness with sweet, salty, sour, and umami flavors in food pairings.

With careful production and usage methods, even naturally bitter sorghum varieties can yield syrups with pleasantly mellow flavor for those sensitive to excessive astringency.

How does sorghum syrup bitterness compare to maple syrup?

Maple syrup is valued for its smooth, delicate sweetness with no bitterness. In contrast, sorghum syrup has some degree of bitterness due to its tannin content. Here’s how the two syrups compare:

Maple syrup Sorghum syrup
Bitterness None Low to high bitterness
Sweetness Very sweet Mild to moderately sweet
Flavor notes Delicate, smooth Bold, complex
Uses Pancakes, sweets, glazing Barbecue, glazing, baking
Price Expensive Low cost

The lower bitterness and greater sweetness of maple syrup make it preferred for drizzling directly over foods. Sorghum syrup’s bolder, more complex taste shines when cooked into dishes. Thanks to sorghum’s lower cost, it can be used more liberally in cooking without breaking the bank.

What foods pair well with bitter sorghum syrup?

While pancakes and waffles are classic maple syrup fare, bitter sorghum syrup is best used in savory contexts where its bold flavor can shine. Here are some ingredients that pair deliciously with bitter sorghum:

  • Pork – Sorghum’s slight bitterness beautifully balances pork’s richness in dishes like baked ham, barbecue ribs, pork chops, or sausage.
  • Chicken – Brushed on chicken wings or drizzled over fried or roasted chicken, sorghum syrup creates incredible flavor.
  • Seafood – Grilled shrimp, fish tacos, crab cakes and other seafood are complemented by sorghum syrup’s complexity.
  • Vegetables – Roasting vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots, Brussels sprouts, or eggplant with sorghum syrup is amazing.
  • Cheese – Strong cheeses like gorgonzola, aged cheddar, and Parmesan pair startlingly well with bitter sorghum syrup.
  • Nuts – Add sorghum syrup to roasted or candied nuts for irresistible snack mixes and dessert toppings.
  • Fruits – Offset sorghum’s bitterness with sweet fruits like pears, berries, stone fruits, and citrus.

In desserts, bitter sorghum syrup can shine when balanced by chocolate, vanilla, coconut, caramel, pecan, or peanut butter flavors. From barbecue to cheeseboards to fruit tarts, bitter sorghum syrup offers a unique taste dimension.


While some sorghum syrups have prominent bitter notes, others are quite mellow and sweet. Factors like tannin content, growing conditions, processing methods, and storage impact bitterness levels. A touch of bitterness provides welcome complexity, but excessive harshness is undesirable. With careful production and pairing choices, bitter sorghum syrup can beautifully enhance savory dishes.

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