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Cooking from the World Pantry: Sorghum

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whole-grain sorghum
Photograph by Maria Zizka

Sorghum is a grain in the grass family that grows in tall, leafy stalks similar in appearance to corn. At the top of each stalk is a cone-shaped head made of auburn, golden, or cream seeds. The plant’s waxy leaves can roll up to lessen water loss during times of intense heat, making sorghum an exceptionally drought-tolerant crop.

Sorghum bicolor was first domesticated in Africa around 2000 BCE, then taken east to India and Asia via trade routes. Today it is widely cultivated throughout arid regions and is considered a staple food in many parts of the world. In the United States, a major portion of domestically grown sorghum goes to ethanol production and livestock feed, but this may be changing.

A number of farmers in the South are reviving the century-old tradition of making sorghum syrup by cooking the naturally sweet juice pressed from the stalks. Sorghum syrup has a slightly bitter and earthy flavor and a heavy, viscous texture like that of molasses. It can be served on top of pancakes or waffles, or substituted for honey in baked goods.

The small, round sorghum seeds are used to make gluten-free beer and are also ground to flour for all kinds of gluten-free cooking and baking. In India, sorghum flour is mixed with hot water, kneaded into a dough, and then turned into a griddled flatbread called jowar roti. In Honduras, sorghum flour is often used in place of corn flour to make tortillas. Throughout Africa, sorghum grains are cooked into a porridge.

If you haven’t already, try cooking at home with whole-grain sorghum. Simply boil the grains in salted water for about an hour, or until they’re tender, then drain and serve in salads, soups, and brothy stews. Cooked sorghum retains a hearty, chewy texture, even when boiled for a little too long. Sorghum has a comforting, mild flavor and partners well with beans and vegetables from any season. Dressed with vinaigrette, it makes a terrific dish to bring to a picnic, as it holds up well and won’t wilt.

There are countless ways to cook with sorghum, but I’d argue that one way is more charming than all the others: popped sorghum. Yes, it pops just like corn! Popped sorghum is about one-quarter the size of popcorn. I like to sprinkle a few popped sorghum grains on an ice cream sundae for a slightly savory spin on a sweet classic.

popped sorghum
Photograph by Maria Zizka

Popped Sorghum

If you want to make lots of popped sorghum, work in batches, adding no more than 3 tablespoons of sorghum to the pan at a time. The grains pop most successfully when there are very few in the pan.

Makes about 1 cup

1 teaspoon olive oil

3 tablespoons whole-grain sorghum

Fine sea salt

Heat a large saucepan over medium heat for 1 minute. When the pan is very hot, add the oil and sorghum and immediately swirl the pan to coat the sorghum in the oil. Cover with a tight-fitting lid. Move the pan back and forth across the burner so that the sorghum moves around while it pops. After about a minute or two, once you hear the popping slow, remove the pan from the heat, and transfer the popped sorghum to a bowl. Sprinkle generously with salt and serve.

If a few unpopped grains of sorghum remain, you can actually eat them as they are—they taste crunchy but nowhere near as hard as unpopped corn kernels.

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