A few years ago, I planted a pomegranate tree in my backyard in Oakland, CA. The first two years were a little disappointing; a handful of bright orange-red flower buds would show up, hint at the promise of fruit, and then drop. In its third year the tree was covered with flower buds that opened and eventually fruited, but, as luck would have it, that was the year we decided to pack up and move to Los Angeles.
I’d grown so attached to the tree that I’d decided to move it with us if possible, but I was left with the question of what to do with the fruit. There was absolutely no way I’d leave it behind or throw it away; I’d waited too long for it. I gave some of the fruit to friends and the rest I packed in a box, which I drove down with me to Los Angeles. While the thick skin of pomegranates makes them last a while, I wanted to make sure I got the most I could out of them, and I decided that the best option was to turn most of them into pomegranate molasses.
Pomegranates are an important ingredient in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and Indian cooking. The bright pink, jewel-like arils inside a pomegranate are sacs that contain both the fruit’s sweet and tart juice and its seeds, and both components can be processed and used as separate ingredients: The juice can be concentrated to produce pomegranate molasses, and the seeds can be dried and ground to produce what’s known in Hindi as anardana (“anar” means pomegranate and “dana” means seed), a spice that’s used to impart a tangy, fruity quality to stews and kebabs.
Unlike molasses made from sorghum, dates, and grapes, pomegranate molasses is more sour than sweet, since pomegranate juice has less sugar and, when reduced and concentrated, its acidity is its most prominent feature. As a result, if I use pomegranate molasses in a salad dressing, drink, or dessert, I’ll typically also add some kind of sweetener, like sugar or date syrup.
The reason why I often make my own pomegranate molasses, setting my bumper crop of fruit aside, is that some commercial brands of pomegranate molasses contain added sugar, and they’re also cooked to the point where they lose their dark, reddish-pink color and turn a shade of dark caramel brown, both of which I find unappealing. But if you want to make your own there are a couple of things to keep in mind.
Anthocyanins and Their Effect on Color and Flavor
Pomegranates get their bright pink-red color from a water-soluble pigments called anthocyanins, which are also responsible for the color in blueberries and red cabbage. Anthocyanins are sensitive to pH, meaning they change their color when submerged in solutions, dependingon the solutions’ concentrations of hydrogen ions. When dissolved in water, which has a neutral pH of 7, they turn blue; in a solution with an alkaline pH, like one made with baking soda, they turn green; and when mixed into an acidic solution like lime juice or vinegar, they turn red.
From a taste perspective, anthocyanins are reported to increase astringency and bitterness, which is why drinking pomegranate juice can make your mouth feel dry and will leave a lingering bitterness.
Anthocyanins are heat-sensitive, and if they’re heated too much or for too long they’re destroyed, so paying careful attention to how high the temperature of the juice gets and to how long it’s heated will help produce a pomegranate molasses with a vibrant color and flavor.
Whole Pomegranates or Pomegranate Juice
Most grocery stores near me carry both the fruit and pomegranate juice, and you can use whatever’s more readily available to you to make pomegranate molasses. There are a few obvious advantages to store-bought juice, like convenience and a very robust color (the color of pomegranate juice, as well as its sweetness, is determined by the variety of fruit you use). If you use store-bought juice, try to avoid the ones with added sugar; I’ve found Pom to be a very good brand.
On average, I’ve found that a 12.5 oz (355g) pomegranate fruit will yield 7.8 oz (220g) of fresh arils, which, in turn, makes about 1/2 cup (120ml) of fresh juice. If you choose to use fresh fruit, discard any overripe arils that have turned brown or else they’ll leave a funny taste. To prepare the fruit for juicing, remove and discard the outer leathery skin, including the white pith, and then soak the arils in cool tap water, which will help to separate out any tiny bits of the white pith (they will float to the surface while the arils will sink). I put the drained arils in a food processor (or blender*) and process them on low speed, just to crack them open, and strain the liquid through a fine mesh sieve lined with a layer of clean cheese cloth placed over a bowl. The strained juice is then ready to be used.
* Depending on the blender you use, the arils can wad up at the base, since no additional liquid is added.
How to Make Pomegranate Molasses
There are a couple of ways to make pomegranate molasses, but my main goal was to figure out a method to reduce the volume of the juice enough to create a thick syrup while preserving a vibrant color, which meant damaging the anthocyanins as little as possible.
The first method I tried involved the oven: I placed the pomegranate juice in a glass dish and heated it in the oven at 350°F (180°C). After about an hour and fifteen minutes, the color started to turn brown due to caramelization, Maillard reactions, and the degradation of the anthocyanins, and the entire process took about 2 hours. I repeated the process using a 300F and 325F oven and, unsurprisingly, the cook time extended to 3 hours and beyond.
The second method, and the one I’m sharing here, is done on the stovetop. By heating the juice in a 12-inch (30.5-cm) stainless-steel sauté pan over medium heat, I cut down on the cooking time by about an hour, and I was able to consistently produce molasses with a gorgeous dark pink-red color. I found that the ideal temperature range to maintain while the juice cooks was 190-200°F (88-93°C).
In my tests, I found that the molasses was ready when the pomegranate juice was reduced to about 1/4th of its original volume, but the best way to determine that the syrup has achieved the right consistency is to use a swipe test. Coat the back of a clean, stainless-steel spoon with the syrup; if you can draw a line with your finger that stays on the coated surface of the spoon, then it’s ready. (This is the same test used to determine the nappe stage of an ice cream or custard and the gel status of a jam or marmalade.)
You can cook it too long, which will produce a very thick syrup that will become even thicker and extremely immobile as it cools. If that happens, add a few tablespoons of boiling hot water to loosen it up.
Since pomegranate juice is very acidic, it’s imperative that you use non-reactive materials when cooking and storing it, which means glass or non-reactive stainless-steel work best (do be careful with jars with metal lids, as the metal on the lid can corrode over long storage times). And since the juice can stain materials like wood and cloth, I suggest using a silicone spatula to stir the juice and scrape down the sides of the saucepan, and wearing an apron.