Published February 1, 2005.
Our guide to maple syrup includes recipes, tasting results, and storage tips.
Maple syrup is a tricky crop: It’s as dependent on the weather as corn or hay but has a shorter season--just four to six weeks. And harvesting methods are old-fashioned, remaining much as they were 100 years ago. But producing real maple syrup is worth the effort and the risk; its sweet, rich flavor has never been successfully imitated. “Pancake syrup” and “imitation maple syrup” are poor facsimiles made almost entirely from corn syrup.
A few basics: The sugar maple tree grows only in the northern temperate zones of North America, from southeastern Canada to Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. A grove of sugar trees is called a “sugarbush”; when the sap flows, you have “sugar weather.” (The word sugar is used more often than syrup in industry nomenclature because originally most sap was condensed not to syrup but to hard sugar, which is more easily preserved.)
The sugaring season begins in late winter or early spring. Optimal conditions occur when the temperature is below freezing at night and above freezing during the day, creating internal pressure that causes the sap to flow through the tree. Sugar season is over when the buds begin to swell and the sap develops an off flavor.
An appropriate maple tree for sugaring is 10 inches in diameter, which usually takes about 40 years of growth. The sugar farmer taps a tree by drilling small holes about 3 inches deep into the trunk, inserting a spout (also called a spile) into the hole, and hanging a bucket from a hook on the spout to catch the dripping sap. (Depending on the size of the tree, there can be up to 3 taps per tree.) In a good season, each hole will yield about 10 gallons of sap, which optimally produces 1 quart of maple syrup, (a 40:1 ratio). Sugaring doesn’t harm the trees; some have been tapped continually tapped for more than 100 years.
Maple sap is a clear liquid that consists of about 2 percent sugar and 98 percent water. Sugaring is the process in which the sap is boiled down and converted to syrup (at which point it's about 67 percent sugar and 33 percent water). Any sizeable sugaring operation occurs in a sugarhouse, a building designed to vent the enormous amount of steam that is produced by the condensing syrup. After boiling, the syrup is filtered, graded, and bottled.
If you’d like to visit a sugarhouse or would like information on how to tap your own trees, check out one of the following Web sites:
Maple syrup is graded according to regulations set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The grades are based on color, or the amount of light that can pass through the syrup. U.S. Grade A Light Amber is sometimes also called “Fancy.” This is the first syrup of the season, made when the sap is lighter and has the mildest flavor. Light Amber syrup is generally used to make maple sugar candy. U.S. Grade A Medium and Dark Ambers are the most common syrups and are mostly used for topping pancakes and waffles. U.S. Grade B syrup, occasionally called cooking syrup, is made late in the season and has the strongest flavor. Grade B syrup is often less expensive than the other grades, though there is no difference in the cost of production.
We tasted nine samples of pure maple syrup to determine the smartest way to buy it: by grade or by source. While we did not find that the syrup made in one region or state was superior to that made in another, tasters did prefer the assertive maple flavor of Grade B syrup. Grade A Dark amber was a close second, with a “nutty, rich flavor.” The medium and light ambers were found lacking in maple flavor.
It used to be hard to find Grade B syrup, as Vermont was the only state that marketed it to consumers. It's now more available nationwide. Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Markets are among the national outlets that carry it. Maple syrup is also available on the Web. King Arthur Flour sells our top-rated syrup, Highland Sugarworks Grade B (1 quart), for $18.95 at The Baker’s Catalogue. For details of our tasting results, including brand names and rankings of table syrups, click here .
Maple syrup can be pricey, so it makes sense to buy it in large quantities. Manufacturers recommend storing maple syrup in the refrigerator in a glass or plastic container for up to three months, but we wondered if storing syrup in the freezer would work as well. We froze half the contents of one bottle of syrup, refrigerated the rest, and then conducted a comparative tasting. The syrup stored in the freezer never froze solid and, once warmed, was identical in taste to the refrigerated syrup. (The syrup never froze because of the high concentration of solids in the liquid--in this case, the sugar.) At most, the syrup will become thick, viscous, or crystallized during freezing, but a quick zap in the microwave will restore it so well that you would never know it had been "frozen."
Maple syrup is adds a rich, welcome flavor to both sweet and savory applications. Here are a few of our favorite recipes:
A glaze of soy sauce and maple syrup creates a deeply caramelized crust that doesn’t stick to the grill.
Maple syrup, with its flavor notes of smoke, caramel, and vanilla, is an ideal match for pork, which has a faint sweetness of its own.
Maple syrup replaces the more traditional sugar in this version of roasted carrots, which produces perfectly cooked, caramelized carrots in just 30 minutes.
The maple syrup adds just enough sweetness to complement the potatoes without turning the dish into a dessert.
Because it is less dense than corn syrup, maple syrup yields a pie that is softer and more custard-like than one made with the more traditional corn syrup.