Real Food Encyclopedia | Maple Syrup

You may know that “pancake syrup” is the margarine of maple syrup: the cheap imitator, the industrial substitute. Its trademark golden tone comes from “caramel color,” and it is essentially comprised of high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors. “Pure” maple syrup (and maple sugar, the crystallized, dehydrated version) is as unadulterated a product as it gets, and is all-American, to boot. Maple syrup production is natural, but it requires many steps and much patience to produce, and it only happens once a year.

Fun Facts about Maple Syrup:

  • The Iroquois tribe holds a Maple Dance festival to celebrate the season for making syrup in the winter, shortly after the new year.
  • When early European colonists arrived in North America, Algonquins and other tribes introduced them to maple syrup, a cheaper, more locally sourced sweetener than sugar or molasses.
  • It takes about 40 gallons of sap from sugar maple trees to produce one gallon of maple syrup.

What to Look for When Buying Maple Syrup

What’s in a grade? The grading — and shading — of maple syrup usually indicates the time of season the sap was extracted. The USDA revised its standards on shading: no more Grades A, B or C. Now, Grade A syrups are categorized essentially by color and flavor:

  • Grade A: Golden Color and Delicate Taste
  • Grade A: Amber Color and Rich Taste
  • Grade A: Dark Color and Robust Taste (formerly Grade B)
  • Grade A: Very Dark Color and Strong Taste (formerly Grade C)

Which type of Grade A you choose depends on what you plan to use the syrup for: the lighter Grade As are good for pouring on pancakes and stirring into yogurt, for example, while the darker Grade As are … also good for pouring on pancakes and stirring into yogurt, but have a robust-enough flavor to bake with or use as a flavoring agent in cocktails and in other dishes.

Sustainability of Maple Syrup

Producing maple syrup, for the most part, is an environmentally sound tradition. To protect maple trees and maintain their production throughout the years, only small holes are drilled into trees — usually one per tree, unless it is exceptionally large — and these holes heal naturally. Processing of the sap is generally done close to the source to reduce transport cost and energy. Maple syrup is a natural product and you usually won’t find additives such as stabilizers or artificial flavors, although check labels to be sure.

Pesticides and Maple Syrup

Pure maple syrup is essentially an organic food product; trees do not need to be treated with chemical pesticides to produce sap and additives do not need to be added to the final product. However, some producers have sought organic labeling for maple syrup, which entails an inspection to ensure that they have maintained these natural processes.

Maple Syrup Seasonality

Yes, maple syrup has a season! The start of maple syrup production differs each year, and requires an experienced sugar maker to determine the best time to begin. Once the weather has reached a pattern of repetitive freezing at night and warming by day, maple trees are tapped, and the warmer weather helps transform the trees’ starches into sweet liquid that runs from these taps.

In Vermont, the sugaring season usually begins in March or April and typically runs 4 to 6 weeks before the trees have been tapped dry. After processing, maple syrup is available year-round. As a shelf-stable product, it doesn’t require refrigeration until being opened. However, over time, the sugars may settle at the bottom of the container into crystals.

Maple Syrup and Geography

Maple syrup is an exclusively North American product. In the United States, maple syrup is produced in several states in the Northeast, with Vermont, New York and Maine leading the pack. It’s also produced in in Wisconsin and Michigan and other Midwest states. However, the Canadian province of Quebec produces most of the maple syrup in the world.

Maple tree sap begins as mostly water, with a 2 or 3 percent concentration of sugar. To concentrate the sugar to 66 percent — the legal requirement for maple syrup today — various steps have been developed. First, sugarmakers are dependent on timing and weather. Maple trees are prime for producing sap after a period of daytime temperatures that reach 40 degrees Fahrenheit or higher with nighttimes still below freezing. This usually occurs in late winter, although timing varies by location and year.

Today’s maple syrup producers extract syrup from woods that are plentiful with sugar maple trees, to run as much syrup from the trees to the same sugarhouse as possible. Small, two-inch holes are drilled into the trees’ trunks at a different location each year, and outfitted with tubes to “tap” the trees. These tubes are interconnected and run down a central tubing toward the sugarhouse, ideally in a downhill direction. Once the sap is collected in the sugarhouse, it is then boiled down in large vats to evaporate more water, and filtered, resulting in maple syrup.

Eating Maple Syrup

Storing Maple Syrup

Due to its high concentration of sugar, maple syrup will not expire once sealed. However, once the container is opened, bacteria can enter and develop into mold given the syrup’s water content. So, one should always refrigerate maple syrup after opening. To preserve its flavor, the syrup is often held in a container (such as an opaque plastic jug) that does not allow light to penetrate.

Cooking with Maple Syrup

Not just for pouring on pancakes and waffles, maple syrup can be used in many ways in the kitchen. Use it instead of sugar in your coffee or tea; give your favorite cookies or baked treat a little extra flavor with a dab in a recipe. Drizzle some on your oatmeal or breakfast cereal. You can even incorporate maple syrup in savory dishes: Whisk together a homemade vinaigrette for a salad using maple syrup or use it as a glaze for meat (it’s especially good with pork, chicken and salmon).

Maple Syrup Nutrition

As a natural sweetener, maple syrup or maple sugar are often hailed a more nutritional choice than white sugar. Maple syrup is host to a wide range of trace minerals, and a large content of manganese, which helps activate enzymes in the body. Maple syrup also contains zinc, which helps aid the immune system, and polyphenols that can act as antioxidants, helping prevent inflammatory diseases.

Maple syrup has a small amount of vitamins, such as Vitamins B complex and Vitamin A. It does not provide quite as many vitamins as honey, another natural sweetener choice, and has roughly the same amount of calories, about 52 per tablespoon. This is slightly higher than the number of calories in the same dose of white sugar — but white sugar has no vitamin and mineral content.