Most cooks don't give molasses a thought until they need it. Everyone's been there. You find a new recipe you just have to make at that moment, and, inevitably, you see molasses somewhere near the end of the ingredient list. Unless you have access to your grandma's kitchen – grandmothers always have a sticky jar of molasses leftover from the 1950s, it seems – you have to substitute.
The thing is, there's no true substitute. Molasses, basically the residue left after extracting sugar crystals from sugarcane, has a one-of-a-kind, complexly sweet flavor that gives classic preparations like gingerbread and shoofly pie their iconic tastes. That said, you can get pretty darn close to molasses with the proper substitute, and you might even prefer the non-molasses version over the original.
But you have to consider more than sweetness; it's just as important to replicate texture, color and consistency. Rather than looking for a one-size-fits-all substitute, formulate a substitute that fits the recipe best, if you can.
Gingerbread cookies are perhaps the simplest recipe in which to substitute for molasses. When making gingerbread, you can substitute an equal amount of dark corn syrup or #3 Grade B dark maple syrup. Depending on where you live, you might have better access to dark corn syrup; it's more common in the U.S. and costs much less than real Canadian maple syrup. But if you're a connoisseur of true maple syrup and happen to have some #3 Grade B dark maple syrup on hand, use it.
Shoofly pie is all about molasses, as in that's where it derives its name – from the Shoofly brand of molasses popular in the early 20th century. Although variations abound, you basically have two types of shoofly pie: dry-bottom and wet-bottom. Wet-bottom shoofly is more or less a thick layer of not-fully-set dark molasses in a pie crust topped with crumble, whereas dry-bottom shoofly pie consists of fully set molasses in a pie crust topped with crumble.
Since texture is of utmost importance here, go with melted dark brown sugar (one and a half times the amount of molasses called for in the recipe) and dark corn syrup or regular corn syrup. Dark brown sugar melts to a molasses-like consistency, but can crystallize, which can give the pie filling a grainy texture; corn syrup prevents crystallization.
To substitute for molasses in a 9-inch shoofly pie filling, which calls for 1 cup of molasses, melt 1 1/2 cups of dark brown sugar in a saucepan along with 1 teaspoon of light or dark corn syrup, and add it to the dish as you would molasses.
Cooking note: The amount of brown sugar substituted in the shoofly pie filling doesn't include the 2/3 cup of brown sugar used for the topping.
For recipes that call for a small amount of molasses, you have more substitutions at your disposal. In savory dishes, such as baked beans, and baked goods, such as brandy snaps, that call for only a spoonful or two of molasses – not enough to radically alter the taste and texture – you can use equal amounts of the following substitutions (unless specified otherwise):
- Dark corn syrup
- Maple syrup
- Barley malt syrup (use one-third less than the amount of molasses called for in the recipe)
- Brown sugar (one and a half times the amount of molasses called for in the recipe).