Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sugar Beets to Molasses, Homestead Style

       This experiment found its inspiration many years ago when my husband was a youngster. He found a sugar beet along the side of the road near his family farm (where we live now, in fact) and took it home. His mom took one look at the thing and declared that there wasn’t enough beet to do anything with. The poor thing shriveled away and was eventually tossed out.     
       Fast forward to spring 2011. Riley ordered sugar beet seeds through a catalog and told me this story. The catalog (Richter’s) provided tentative directions for processing sugar beets at home.
Sugar beets, from the garden, ready to
chop, ready for the stock pot
       Reading those directions made it clear that the company was offering the directions they had gleaned from some 4H source and that the company had not tried the directions, which were said to produce a cup of white sugar and half a cup of molasses from two 8-10 pounds of sugar beets. To follow this "recipe" you need seltzer water and milk of lime, also known as calcium hydroxide. I have a seltzer bottle and found recharging canisters for it in the sporting department of a big department store. Sporting department? Apparently they are used somehow with paint balls. Milk of lime presents a larger problem. First of all, it is not milk, has nothing to do with the fruit, and is not a food supplements. This is the mineral farmers use to sweeten their fields. My favorite pharmacy has tried to order it without success. My husband found it online, but hasn’t ordered it yet. The smallest package he found was five pounds. While it isn’t expensive, this is a huge amount. Added to that are the warnings he found about the fine powder hanging in the air and the stuff’s violent reaction to water. If I can get my hands on milk of lime, I’ll probably experiment with it–outside, upwind.
In the pot and in a cloth-lined strainer
        In the meantime, I have found directions for processing sugar beets at home much like a homesteader might have done near the end of the nineteenth century. It wasn’t until late in that century that sugar beets became popular as a source of sugar. The first commercial sugar beets processing plant in the USA wasn’t opened until 1879 or thereabouts.
       Modern sugar beets have been modified so that they have smoother surfaces and, therefore, less crevices to catch dirt, which is washed off mechanically in the commercial plants. If I read my sources correctly, modifications also include a nice tapered shape, like a fat turnip, with a single root, multiple roots being undesirable for the same reason as creases. A few of the sugar beets I grew had this nice shape. They all sported crevices and many had several roots. My biggest were under five pounds. Most ranged between three and four pounds. Four or five of these will probably be enough to fill a sixteen quart stock pot, depending on how ruthless you are in preparing the beets for cooking.
Sugar beet syrup still hot from cooking.
       Sugar beets and the red beets we are more familiar with come form a common ancestor, but sugar beets take longer to mature. They should be plucked from the ground before a freeze, and can be stored for weeks if necessary before processing. Standard practice appears to be to knock beets together to remove excess dirt at harvest time. The commercial plants here in Michigan run 24/7 from harvest and into February, but my crop was already showing aging signs in December, so I was not comfortable with leaving them unprocessed any longer.
        To get started, scrub the beets to remove any remaining dirt. Keep in mind that there will be more of this than you want to go down your drain. I used a small scrub brush. Cut off tops and anything else you don’t like the looks of. I cut away green beet meat, places where dirt could still be hiding and the top center where it looked like insects may have taken up residence. In doing this, I disturbed a few silverfish and one very large black spider.
        Prepare the beets to go through whatever mechanical device you have to grind, chop, or sliver the beets, or chop/slice with a knife. For what I used, chunks worked best, and they went though my slicer much easier when peeled. I peeled after cutting the beets into chunks. Much easier.
       Sugar beets are as tasty and edible to people as red beets. If you plan to can or freeze these, I suggest you prepare two pots, one with clean white, uniformly sliced beets, the other with everything else. I found no canning directions for sugar beets, but see no reason why instructions for red beets would be any different. The Ball Blue Book is the best reference for canning procedures.
       Fill you stock pot with beets barely covered with water, but leave room for expansion and stirring. Bring to a boil and cook until mushy (or tender if you are saving the beets). Stir frequently. Directions say an hour will suffice, but I don’t think there’s such a thing as overcooking these, unless you are going to save the beets for people food. It’s the sugar water that you process for molasses and sugar. Commercially, the beets themselves are sold as stock food.. At this point the mass in your pot won’t look very appetizing, more like something for a paper mache project than food.
Sugar Beet syrup starting crystallization process.
      Once the beets are soft, separate the beets and water. I dump a few cups’ worth into a cloth-lined strainer and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Pre-wet the cloth. The liquid resembles a weak tea. A taste at this point will convince you there is sugar in the liquid! This must be cooked down until it’s thick like honey. Cook over low to medium heat, stirring frequently. When it goes to a full rolling boil like you get when you make jelly, you know you are close to being finished. This is the point where you want to watch it closely so you don’t spoil your product by burning it. You may start with four or more quarts of tea from one stock pot of beets, but you will end up with two or three cups, at most, of syrup.
       If you process one stock pot full after another, use the same water more than once to save cook–down time.
       Cool it some before you transfer your syrup to a storage container. I suggest you use something that will allow you access while the crystallization process progresses. I’m using Corelle dishes with lids. A wide-mouthed canning jar would be perfect. The crystallization process could be a long one, as my directions compare it with honey crystallization. My directions say that the sugar will form clumps that you will want to break up periodically. Your main problem with this waiting period may be using the syrup for cooking, on pancakes, spread on bread, or used as a honey substitute so that it’s gone before the process is complete. If you want to hurry the process, you can try cooking it down further.
       More than a month after rendering the last of my 82 pounds of sugar beets, I have three syrup batches (less than three quarts) prepared at different times and now at different stages of crystallization. From the first batch I have a little almost pure sugar, still moister than the brown sugar you find in the store. (Do you know that the brown sugar you buy is processed to the white stage, then molasses is added to make it brown again?) Some of the other batches has reached a point where the syrup is too thick with sugar to pour, but there is no separation of crystallized sugar and molasses. This is something I haven't figured out how to do. During the commercial process, seltzer and the milk of lime are added to settle out impurities (chemicals, not dirt) that interfere with crystallization. The Richters directions say to use an orange juicer and percolator top to separate the two with a spinning action. I don't have these. I tried using a regular juicer without success.
       I continue to experiment with using both the brown sugar and molasses in cooking and love the results I've had, but you will have noticed by now that this is a great deal of work for little return. Remember I started with over eighty pounds of beets. While the beets themselves are edible, the only way I really like beets is pickled, for which I prefer red beets. Only you can decide if all this is worth the effort, but you may want to give it a try as an experiment. Knowing how to process this sweetener could come in handy if, for some reason, you could no longer buy sugar at the grocery store. Then again, if you do it yourself, you know exactly what the product came in contact with during the process. Sometimes, in reading about commercial shortcuts, you learn more than you want to know.


  1. It does look like a long process but I like to use molasses in a few breakfast dishes I make... this would be one more way to eat more locally. Time to order some sugar beet seeds :)

    1. My sugar beets are looking wonderful! I'll be making my molasses/sugar soon... I'll give you the update when I'm done. I'm going to use a steam juicer to get the "sugar water" out.

  2. It wouldn't separate the molasses from the sugar, but I wonder if it's as simple as making maple sugar? I make maple candy every Christmas, and to get it to crystalize, I boil the syrup to 265 degrees, turn it off and let it cool a little, then mix it with an electric mixer until it "seizes." Of course, I want clumps, not sugar, but if I wanted sugar, I would just keep mixing. (Found that out by trial and error.) THANK YOU for posting this. I just bought some sugar beet seeds and I had no idea where to go from there, but this was my goal.

    1. Lawnless Trials. My source tells me that making sugar from beets is more complicated than making maple sugar. It says nothing about beating it to form crystals, only cooking it down more. Then there's the purification process and centrifugal action that I don't have the chemicals or machinery for. Interesting suggestion though, Jeannie, but I already "seized" my mixer mixing bread dough and had to replace the mixer as a result. I'm not eager to repeat that.