It may be an issue with branding, concedes Roxana Jullapat. Sorghum sounds odd – and not especially delicious. “I do wonder: why did quinoa get a chance and sorghum didn’t?” says Jullapat, who runs the Los Angeles bakery Friends & Family. She is also the author of Mother Grains: Recipes for the Grain Revolution. It is a cookbook, but also a love letter to whole grains and a manifesto for weaning people off wheat. Although Jullapat covers other “ancient” grains – including rye, oat and barley – in the book, sorghum is probably the least familiar to most readers in the UK.
Originating in Africa, where it is eaten widely, sorghum made its way to the southern US, probably with enslaved people. Later, it became an important crop – particularly for the sweet sorghum molasses made from it – to African American families in the south; the culinary historian Michael W Twitty has talked about reclaiming sorghum. It is popular in the Middle East and east Asia, too. It is a very weather-resistant crop and can be grown in a densely populated way, which makes it valuable in terms of food security.
In the UK, you can find sorghum in some health food stores or supermarkets that serve Asian and African communities, or online. Here are Jullapat’s tips on what to do with it.
Use it in gluten-free baking
Flour made from sorghum doesn’t contain gluten and is a valuable addition to the pantry of those avoiding it. “It is a white, neutral-tasting flour,” says Jullapat. “Oat and buckwheat flour are gluten-free, but they have pronounced flavours. Rice is neutral-tasting, but it’s incredibly dense, so you have a hard time making bread out of it.”
Jullapat prefers not to use additives, such as xanthan gum, to make up for the lack of gluten. “I use it in recipes where you have other ingredients to compensate for body. I like to use it for carrot cake, because that has tons of shredded carrots and raisins. I also like to use it in recipes that have a lot of butter, especially if the butter is melted.” Her book includes a recipe for a delicious-sounding brown butter cake with hazelnuts, as well as several cookie recipes.
Sorghum is suited to flatbreads, says Jullapat, as it is hard to get it to rise. “A popular way to use sorghum is to make tortillas and roti. With flatbreads, it’s common to use really hot water, so the flour is partially cooked. It adds elasticity and you’re able to roll it.”
Use the whole grains
They have a chewy bite, sweetness and a “subtle, nutty taste … they feel a little creamy”, says Jullapat. “More than any other grain I work with, they remind me of vegetables – they make me think of parsnips, carrots and golden beets. Sometimes they almost feel herbaceous to me, like thyme and sage. These are background flavours. Sorghum is a good teammate – it lets other players shine.”
Explore its versatility
Use it like couscous, or make porridge. “It can also be cooked like a risotto, because it will build that creaminess,” says Jullapat. This is because it is starchy – which also means it can be used to make “a really mean burger”, she says: “It holds its shape.” It is also great in salads, she adds: “You can drench it in delicious vinaigrettes. It loves olive oil. Because it’s sweet, I love it with tart flavours, like olives or a good squeeze of lemon.” Cook it like pasta, she says: “tons of boiling water and salt, then when it’s tender just drain it”. She soaks it in advance, but says this is not essential. “I think it’s more important to do a good rinse under running water before you cook it, to wash away some of its starchiness [when not beneficial].”
Cook it like popcorn. “The grain is smaller, so it’s really cute,” says Jullapat. The yield is low, so it is best as a topping. Jullapat adds it to a dukkah-style mix of spices such as coriander and cumin. “My recipe has sesame seeds and cashews. I put the popped sorghum in it and we sprinkle it over avocado toast,” she says.
Get some sorghum syrup
As mentioned, sorghum is also made into syrup or molasses. “It can be applied in the way that you would use treacle in your recipes. My favourite thing to do with it is to sweeten whipped cream, because it’s not super-sweet and it gives it a butterscotch flavour,” says Jullapat. It is a small-produce item, often sold by individual farms, mostly in the southern US states. It can be hard to get hold of in the UK – you can buy it online from the US, although this is not cheap.
Open the door to other ancient grains
While Sorghum is not a supermarket staple in the UK, other grains about which Jullapat is enthusiastic are. Moving away from wheat flour, or at least substituting some of it with flour made from rye or buckwheat, “will help you gain understanding of why this is a relevant way to feed yourself and your family. You will gain more in flavour and nutrition, but there is a larger mission, which is contributing to saving seeds for future generations.
“By using these products, we’re sending a direct message to the makers of foods that there is interest in keeping these crops alive. We call these seeds ancient grains, because they were neglected for many decades. There’s the sense of recovery, of gaining something we have lost.”