Published November 1, 2011. From Cook's Illustrated.
Terms like "mild," "full," and "robust" are meaningless when it comes to molasses. The only surefire way to know what we were getting was to taste them.
Molasses is made by boiling the juice of sugarcane or sugar beets and then extracting sugar crystals through centrifuge. More stages of boiling (and extraction) may follow to produce an increasingly intense flavor. A first boil typically corresponds to mild or “Barbados” molasses; a second boil produces a style sometimes called “full”; and a third creates blackstrap, the most assertive and bitter molasses. We ruled out blackstrap for its overpowering flavor (based on previous tastings) and sampled five national brands in other styles, plain and in our Gingersnaps recipe. (We tasted only unsulfured versions.)
The first thing we discovered is that descriptive names on labels—including “mild,” “original,” “full,” and “robust”—are not a reliable indicator of how the molasses tastes. A brand labeled “mild” rated among the strongest for flavor. But we also found that when it comes to baking, it doesn’t matter what molasses you buy (as long as it’s not blackstrap). When sampled straight, some brands tasted “burnt” or “like coffee grounds,” but baking mellowed out their differences; all five brands were equally acceptable in cookies. Tasted plain, one molasses was our favorite for its “caramelized,” “spicy” taste.