Raw honey’s natural sweetness replaces refined sugars with sweet taste packed with antioxidants from phytonutrients, plant-based organic nutrients that appear to promote health. Cooks can replace chemical or refined sweeteners with raw honey because of these theoretical benefits. Molasses is another natural sweetener that contains a different group of nutrients. Before substituting one for the other, know your sweeteners.
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Honey’s sweetness and taste varies based on time of harvest and plants the bees have feasted upon. The most nutritious honey is raw -- straight from the comb. As honey ages, the temperature and light conditions at which it is kept alter its sweetness and antioxidant content. Honey farms sell different varieties of honey. Clover is the most common but bees produce honey from any flowering plant. Wildflower, buckwheat, basswood, orange blossom all have their own distinctive tastes. Honey even comes from honeydew, the high-carbohydrate waste left by sucking insects such as aphids as they feed on plants.
The cane sugar refinement process consists of several steps of crushing, boiling and crystallizing before it produces refined white sugar. The molasses by-products are characterized as first step, second and so on to the least sweet -- and most nutritious -- form, called blackstrap. Some producers add sulfur to increase sugar yield, resulting in the less- desirable “sulfured” molasses. Sweetness decreases with each step and blackstrap molasses may have a bitter taste, but widely available light and dark molasses products give foods a rich color and flavor. Unsulfured molasses is a natural sweetener and is a good source of iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium as well as an excellent source of copper and manganese.
Recipes specify molasses for its taste or color. Gingerbread, pecan pie, barbecue sauces and baked beans all require dark color and robust flavor. Although substitution of other ingredients, such as brown sugar, may be noted in the recipe, they cannot duplicate the pungent taste of molasses. Honey, with its delicate floral sweetness would change the taste of the resulting food. Food made with honey instead of molasses might also have a different texture or slightly differing acidity due to molasses grade or honey source.
Honey may be substituted cup for cup for light molasses, according to the Land O’Lakes test kitchen, but the flavor of the food will be affected. The reverse, however; molasses requires added sugar to approximate honey. Nutrition specialist and Colorado State University professor Patricia Kendall acknowledges the equivalence problem by substituting refined sugar, a uniform substance, for the variable sweeteners. Honey, says Kendall, taken in 1 cup measure, is equivalent to 1-1/4 cup of sugar liquid added. Molasses, on the other hand, is equivalent to 3/4 cup sugar, a decrease in recipe liquid and baking soda and addition of baking powder. The wise cook should know the exact sweetness and desired result before substituting for either natural sweetener, but substitution is possible, if the cook is willing to settle for changes in the result’s taste, texture and nutrition.