Gingerbread is a holiday tradition around here. Every year I pull out my grandma Bettie’s recipe and whip up a big batch to ship to family. And every year I try to figure out a different way to decorate them, seeing as my past attempts at flooded iced cookies were, um, less than perfect.
Last year I got so frustrated that I went all jackson pollock on the suckers, furiously splattering them with three different kinds of chocolate. So this year I kept it simple, with two colors of royal icing and some edible glitter.
Well, mostly simple. I didn’t realize quite how intricate my ornate design plan was until I was a few cookies in to it. The results were very pretty, I’ll admit, but my hands sure paid for it. I tell you, professional cookie decorators must have incredibly buff right hands.
Now let’s pause for a moment and talk about what happens before the cookies even go into the oven. Namely, the molasses. I always knew there were different kinds of molasses, but I never really paid much attention to it. Unsulphured is a word that comes up often, but have you ever seen a sulphured molasses in the store? I haven’t.
(And FYI – the plural of molasses is, in fact, molasses. I wish it was something with a bit more flourish, like molassi for example, but whatever).
After I made that delicious Sweet Pototo Cake with Molasses Buttercream, I got to thinking. Especially after someone commented that their buttercream had an odd aftertaste. I thought, maybe it had to do with the type of molasses used? And what is the difference anyway?
Time for some good old fashioned experimentation.
Molasses, you see, is a sweet syrup that comes from the sugar cane, and is a byproduct of the sugar making process. The juice extracted from the sugar cane is boiled until some of the sugars crystallize out, and the juice will often be boiled up to 3 times to extract as much sugar as possible. What’s left is a thick, sweet syrup called, you guessed it, molasses.
The main types of molasses are:
Light: The syrup left after the first boil. It’s typically the lightest in color, with a mild flavor. Most commercial molasses available in U.S. grocery stores is light molasses. And if it’s not labeled otherwise, you can assume this is what it is.
Dark: After a second boil, the molasses gets darker, more robust, and there are less sugars remaining the syrup. Molasses labeled Dark or Robust will have a stronger flavor and darker color.
Blackstrap: The final byproduct left after the third boil. Blackstrap molasses is very concentrated, making it pungent, almost spicy with notes of licorice. It is also the darkest and most viscous of all varieties of molasses. Apparently it is very good for you, high in iron, so it is often sold at health food stores.
Sulphured: Made from young sugarcane, it has a much lighter and milder flavor than even your typical light molasses. The sulpher it is referring to is sulpher dioxide, a preservative. In my searching I was unable to find a true sulphured molasses; I would have loved to test out the differences in flavor!
Unsulphered: Most commercial molasses available in the U.S. is unsulphered, and it is usually labeled as such. Unsulphered molasses is made from more mature sugar cane plants, and thus the preservative is not needed. You can find unsulphured molasses in all three grades (light, dark, and black).
Sorghum: Trick question! Sorghum isn’t molasses at all, but rather a similar product made from the sorghum plant. It’s much milder in flavor, and probably a bit tough to track down unless you live in the South. I already had way more cookies than I could even think of decorating, but maybe next year I’ll test out a batch using sorghum.
But what does this all mean in terms of how they taste? Well, I put it to the test, baking up a batch of my grandma’s classic gingerbread using both light and blackstrap varieties. I purchased two bottles of molasses, a classic, light molasses (Brer Rabbit brand, but Grandma’s is the most commonly available), and a bottle of Plantation brand Blackstrap molasses.
The color is probably the most distinguishable difference; the blackstrap cookies looking almost like a chocolate gingerbread. They make for a beautiful dark canvas for icing decorations.
In terms of flavor, it’s really hard to tell, even considering the sheer amount of molasses that goes into these (you’ll need two bottles if you plan to make a full batch!) Blindfolded, I don’t think Taylor or I could tell the difference. Maybe if you knew you were eating a blackstrap cookie you could say it was slightly less sweet or slightly more pungeant, but honestly? It’s not very discernible. My advice would be to follow your recipe, but if it comes down to it, substituting one for another is not the end of the world.
Another fun fact? Grandma Bettie’s gingerbread recipe (before frosting) is totally vegan. Who’da thunk?
Bettie's Classic Gingerbread Cut Outs
- 1/2 cup shortening
- 1 1/2 cups brown sugar
- 2 1/4 cups molasses
- 7-10 cups all-purpose flour*
- 1 1/2 teaspoons allspice
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
- 3/4 + 1/4 cup water
- 1 tablespoon baking soda
- Cream shortening and brown sugar. Add molasses and mix well.
- Mix spices with 1 cup of the flour and add. Add the rest of flour about 1/2 cup at a time, alternating adding water and flour. Combine baking soda and final 1/4 cup water and add last.
- Cover and chill dough for at least an hour before rolling out. (At this point you can also freeze the dough for up to a month. Thaw completely before rolling out.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- On a well-floured surface, roll out dough to desired thickness (I found about 1/4 inch thick makes nice soft yet sturdy cookies) and cut out shapes. Arrange cookies on a parchment or silicone lined baking sheet.
- Bake cookies for approximately 10-14 minutes or more (longer cooking times will yield stiffer cookies). Allow to cool a few minutes on cookie sheets, then transfer to cooling racks and cool completely before frosting.
*Use more flour for a stiffer cookie (say, for gingerbread houses), and less flour for softer cookies. The dough is very forgiving. I’ve found that about 8/8.5 cups is just about perfect for me.
Did you make this recipe?
Let us know what you think!
Leave a Comment below or share a photo and tag me on Instagram with the hashtag #loveandoliveoil.
Could I use coconut oil Instead of shortening please?
I have not tested this so I cannot say. I don’t think the cookies will be quite as soft.
Lindsey, I just looked at my last message to you above and I have no idea why all the question marks showed up as I expressed my happiness in locating you on Instagram today. I’m very pleased I found you and all your well researched and prepared recipes.
I just wanted to apologize for all the silly question marks that showed up after I sent my above message.
Lindsey, Thank you So much for researching molasses, so we would know the differences and which to use in our baking. I greatly appreciate all the research, explanation and specifics for each recipes. So Very glad I found you today on Instagram. ?????
I do have one question: because I no longer chose to use Crisco, as I was first instructed to use when making pie crust, is it possible to substitute butter instead? And if so, do I need to adjust my measurements?
Also I prefer almond or cocoanut flour in place of all purpose flour, when possible in a recipe. Again, do I need to adjust my measurements when measuring out the flour I use?
Thank you for your time in answering me back.
Using butter instead of shortening in these cookies is possible, but will result cookies that aren’t as soft. The flavor would be fantastic though!
I do not have any experience baking with gluten-free flours so I really cannot say as to how well it might work and any adjustments that might need to be made; I might suggest seeking out a gluten free gingerbread cookie recipe and use that instead.
It’s me again. I decided to make a 1/4 batch of these cookies using Grandma’s molasses and compare taste with the ones I previously made with Black strap. Truthfully I got use to the black strap cookie taste and these offered less flavor. Next time I might try half of each type. If I had to pick one I’d use the black strap.
I’ve decided overall this recipe is a keeper.
I had never made gingerbread cookies…search the internet and decided to try these.
I made a half recipe this past weekend using blackstrap molasses. I used 3 1/2 c of flour. Took 1/2 cup of the flour and mixed with the spices as directed. The dough was a black as the ace of spades! I divided it into 3 flattened portions, wrapped in plastic wrap and chilled it overnight.
I set out 1/2 c of flour to use when I rolled the dough. I think I only had to use 1/4 of that to roll all 3 portions. The dough rolls beautifully. I baked mine for 11 minutes. Decorated with a very small batch of buttercream made with 1c of confectioner’s sugar, 2 t of butter, 1 t vanilla, 1T milk.
Plenty of frosting to do my decorating.
I thought the cookies had a very strong molasses taste. Not totally unpleasant but you definitely have to be a fan of molasses.
Not sure I’m a big enough molasses fan to use this recipe again, but I want to stress the dough rolled out so very easily!
I tried to add a photo but I had no luck.
Thanks for posting this recipe.
Terrible, terrible, terrible, lovely consistency, crispy on the outside and nice and soft on the inside, but taste was horrible, just waaaay too much molasses for sure, what a waste of lovely and not so cheap ingredients, I couldn’t even disguise the after taste with icing sugar on top, seriously advise you review the amount of molasses in this recipe.
Sorry these didn’t turn out for you, the recipe is definitely correct as written (just the way my grandma used to make them). Molasses is the primary flavor of gingerbread, so if you don’t love molasses to begin with you should probably find a different cookie. If you used a blackstrap molasses (I’m guessing you might have?) the flavor would definitely be more pronounced and even leaning towards bitter. I prefer a mild molasses myself, such as Grandma’s or Brer Rabbit mild.
Love the explanation of molasses. How about light or dark brown sugar? Make much difference? Thank you.
Dark brown sugar has more molasses and a richer flavor. It shouldn’t make a huge difference in this recipe if you swap one for the other though. ;)
Ok, little gingerbread men making snow angels in powdered sugar is the cutest picture!! Love this!
You know I was really reticent to try these after some bad comments. But I made half a recipe (which turned out to be about 5 dozen smallish cookies) and they turned out really good. They are definitely ‘real’ gingerbread, dark, spicy and not at all sweet. They almost have a graham cracker-y taste. I’m wondering if that’s why people didn’t like them? Perhaps they were expecting more ‘cookie’ and less gingerbread.
Anyway, I halved everything and ended up using about 3 1/2 cups flour. I almost added more since the dough was very, very sticky, but resisted the urge. After refrigerating them for about 8 hours, I divided the dough into four pieces and rolled them on a lightly floured surface and they were fine. (definitely had to blow them off though! I tend to think they’d be too sticky to roll out between plastic wrap…) I think I baked them for about 10 minutes and they turned out very soft (I didn’t want a hard cookie, but they are definitely not chewy either. Pretty soft). They are the perfect canvas with icing. I used butter cream (1 cup butter, 2 lbs powdered sugar, a dash of vanilla and milk/cream/half and half to consistency). They will have to dry for probably about a day, but royal icing just seemed like a pain in the ass. All in all I was very pleased with them. All of us (3, 6, 38 and 42) found them awesome and will continue to make them. Thanks for a great recipe :)
oh yeah, I used blackstrap molasses….
Thanks so much for sharing your results, so glad you enjoyed the cookies! And yes, these are definitely old-school gingerbread, which I think doesn’t always align with today’s tastes. But they are still my favorite. :)
Thank you so much for your comments about what type of molasses to use! I have a bottle of blackstrap and didn’t even know there were different kinds until I googled it…. then got kinda freaked out because the first hit said blackstrap was only used for animal feed! Really appreciate your side-by-side comparison! :)
Lindsay, sorry to say these were the worst cookies I never made. I was looking for a nice gingerbread cookie recipe and everything sounded perfect, especially the lesson in molasses. But the cookies tasted so bad, I was making them as favors for my daughter’s first birthday and it was quite a disappointment and waste of time and money. :-((((
I’m about going nuts trying to duplicate cookies similar to these, which my mom made years ago. Those she made were tooth-breakers when cooled, which turned into a stiff chewy cookie when stored in a container for a week or so. I’ve tried two different recipes I have without getting the results I want. With both recipes I’ve gotten a very sticky dough that defies rolling & cutting, The first time was a gingerbread cookie recipe. I ended up adding a lot more flour after chilling the dough, because it was just too sticky to work with, and then the cookies ended up tasting too much like flour. This time I tried a “dark cookies” recipe, and have the same problem ending up with a sticky, wet dough. I’m now suspecting I have the right recipe, except I think she must have not put in the baking soda, possibly by accident! Would the soda be used just to put some air in the dough?
1 egg, 1c sugar, 1 “scant” cup shortening, 1c sour milk, 4c flour, 2t cinnamon, 1/2t ginger, 1/4t cloves, 3t vanilla, 1c blackstrap or sorghum, 1t baking soda dissolved in molasses. Cream sugar & shortening, add egg & sour milk. Mix dry ingredients together and add to mix. Fold in molasses & soda, mix well. Roll out & cut (chill if necessary it says, certainly hasn’t helped in my case!) Make cutout cookies, bake 10-12min 400F. Chewy when hot, makes a very hard cookie that becomes chewy again if sealed in a container for a week or so.
Six cups of flour worked really well for me. Delicious and easy recipe. Just be sure not to skip the refrigeration step! My nine year old loves these cookies!
Six cups of flour worked really well for me. Delicious and easy recipe. Just be sure not to skip the refrigeration step! My nine year old loves these cookies!
Loving this recipe – I’ve never worked with molasses before and I have to say I was pretty nervous (also because I find it harder to make cookies compared to other desserts). Although I halved the recipe and as a result messed up some measurements, it seems okay for now. Would’ve appreciated some tips on working with this kind of dough and maybe some pictures of how the texture is supposed to turn out ^^
Hi Lindsay, FYI, my memory of your grandmother Bettie’s kitchen is that she used Brer Rabbit molasses. Maybe Aunt Sal can confirm this. It would be the brand sold at California Safeways in the 1950’s. Watch that obsessive decorating. We don’t want you to get carpal tunnel syndrome. Bettie would have rounded up some kids or neighbors and had them help with the decorating (and guess what, you can decorate the kids with the left over icing).
This is great info! Can I share it on my blog? Crediting you of course!
The grossest cookies I have EVER made in my life! It’s a shame that I wasted the amount of flour that I did on these. They taste like eating flour and water mixed and that is it. I read and re-read the recipe, and followed it exactly..has anyone else made these? All the comments seem to be about the cute pictures and the molasses blog…
I just used this recipe as well. (Well, the dough is cooling right now). I think it will turn out alright, but I had to tweak the ingredient ratios- most notably the flour. I think if only 3 cups of flour were used, shortening was increased, then it’d be more of what you’d expect :). (I subbed shortening for butter, fwiw).
I was already 6 cups deep into the recipe, so when I realized that it wasn’t moist enough, I adjusted the ratio of the rest of the ingredients accordingly, and used milk (about a half a cup for 6 c. flour) instead of water. I also increased the amount of spices used (I like ’em with a kick!)
That said- with the ratio adjustments, the dough tastes AWESOME, and is the proper consistency :) And most importantly- it passed the taste test of a VERY picky 4 year old (prior to egg being added, of course.)
So, we’ll see how it ends up! I’d imagine that if there ARE any problems after this point, it’s probably because I over-mixed in my determination ;).
Also, like everyone else on here- SUPER appreciate the explanation of molasses!
Also, I left the molasses exactly as written- but increased brown sugar. Mostly because I was out of molasses. But the dough I ended up with seemed to have the proper pungency of molasses- you wouldn’t want any more, or less.
Is there a substitute to the molasses?
Also how many does this make?
Molasses is what makes gingerbread gingerbread, so there really is no substitution. Outside the US you might look for something called treacle which I believe is a similar product.
As far as quantity, it depends on what size cookie cutter you use, but it makes plenty! I think I got about 40 large-ish cookies out of one batch, which is quite a lot. Halve it if you don’t want to be decorating for days. :)
Bettie always made a big deal out of using the Brer Rabbit with the orange label.
That’s what I thought (and why I went to 4 different stores to find it!) although the recipe you gave me does say “dark molasses,” but the orange label says mild flavor.
Thanks so much for posting this recipe! Is there a link for the icing recipe?
I used Bridget’s recipe/method here:
These look absolutely amazing!!! It makes me wish that I participated in the Great Cookie Exchange again this year because I might have had a chance to taste them. Thanks for the tutorial, I appreciate it!
They look gorgeous! Love your art on gingerbread.
I never knew there was so many differences and nuances between molassessessess. :) Great tutorial, Lindsay. Happy Holidays.
These cookies are beautiful! I also never thought about the difference the type of molasses would make in baked goods. Thanks for experimenting and sharing :)
I love the cookies, Lindsay…so cute!!!
i love this – so southern, and it makes me happy :) we always have molasses and sorghum in the house. it’s a requirement, along with butter and bacon grease.
i love it when someone (other than martha stewart) takes the time to do this – tell us the difference between products! i’m not very familiar with molasses – i don’t think it’s widly used here in australia (though someone may prove me wrong). we tend to use treacle for when the really rich dark stuff is required (as in a rich gingerbread) but mostly we use golden syrup, which is divine in golden syrup dumplings!
yum, now i’m hungry!
You know I believe treacle and molasses are essentially the same thing. Golden syrup might be more akin to our corn syrup (although made from sugar cane vs corn). I’ve been meaning to pick up some golden syrup (recently saw it in a store here!), I’d love to try baking with it sometime!
I am enamoured with those gingerbread men name cookies!! Your piping skills are lovely. They would make such great placecards at a dinner party or even in the boardroom at a business meeting!
I like gingerbread cookies and all, but I’m already gingerbread(ed?) out. Every single box of cookies I got for the cookie swap were gingerbread cookies!!! :( Anyway, one of the cookies tasted…how should I say this…off? It almost had a metallic flavor or something. Maybe it was all about the molasses? *BEAUTIFUL* pipe work on your cookies, BTW! Absolutely gorgeous!
That top photo made me laugh, such a great shot and a really cute idea. The molasses info is interesting, how funny that you couldn’t tell the difference.
I was fascinated reading about molasses. Wow that makes me sound pretty exciting, huh? :)
Perfectly cut out cookies! They almost look “live” :).
i love how I just found your blog as I was thinking about how it would be nice to have gingerbread cookies tomorrow morning !
Thanks for sharing
I love your gingerbread men snow angels, so cute!
Interesting post. I had no idea. I absolutely love the “angel” pose. Too cute!
I just opened a jar of date molasses tonight – am trying them in my gingerbread. If they work I will report back!
Blackstrap Molasses – now that’s old school down south home cookin – love it!
Wow they look sooo pretty! I never have the patience to reallu beautify my cookies :(
This looks so awesome!
I love your molasses comments!
I actually forbid blackstrap molasses in baking. It gives things a ‘ham-y’ taste. I know it’s healthier, though, so I feel guilty sometimes!
I did something similar last year with Chewy Ginger Molasses cookies! In case you are interested, here is my post about it!
A gorgeous version of this cookie!
I always have used Grandma’s Unsulphured and swear by it in my baking. I like it has no additives and it’s the one my dad would pour over his pancakes! Great post, XOXO
Love the molasses info! I write about it too because making something with blackstrap is going to give wildly different results than mild unsulphered. I take nothing for granted always specify which to use because there is so much confusion out there about it – and yes, it’s definitely a confusing ingredient! Great looking gingerbread, too!
interesting about the molasses- I rarely use them and so only have the dark ones at home. And SERIOUSLY- those decorations are pretty incredible (knowing how hard they are to decorate, I’m impressed)
And vegan? you got me there for the recipe.
Gingerbread men snow angels
I love the effect you gave with the gingerbread men making snow angels in the powdered sugar: soooooo cute!
Fun experiment and I’m dying over the first image. Please tell me you purposely created snow angels in the flour? lol Hilarious.
A good gingerbread cookie is a perfect winter treat (especially when it is as pretty as yours are) and the lesson in molasses is very useful and timely considering my cookie baking plans :)
Kathryn, do you have a good London molasses supplier? I have been reduced to black treacle.
I just had a debate about molasses. Thanks for this post!