Maple and Pancake Syrup

Published January 1, 2009. From Cook's Illustrated.

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Does it pay to buy the priciest syrup in the aisle—and does it even need to be real maple?

Overview:

Update: February 2014

Vermont has adopted new international labeling standards. The new system eliminates the B and C grades for all syrup that is boiled down from sap, without any additives or preservatives. Instead, this pure syrup will be classified as grade A, and differentiated with labels describing color and flavor combinations such as “gold and delicate,” “amber and rich,” and “very dark and strong.”

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The syrup area of the supermarket is full of evocative names. You can breakfast with motherly Mrs. Butterworth or manly Hungry Jack or escape into nature with Maple Grove Farms, Spring Tree, or Log Cabin. Sold side by side, genuine maple syrup and so-called pancake syrup (made with high-fructose corn syrup) can range from more than $1 per ounce for the real deal to a mere 14 cents per ounce for an imitation. But, price and product names aside, which tastes best? To find out, we pitted four top-selling national brands of maple syrup against five popular pancake… read more

Update: February 2014

Vermont has adopted new international labeling standards. The new system eliminates the B and C grades for all syrup that is boiled down from sap, without any additives or preservatives. Instead, this pure syrup will be classified as grade A, and differentiated with labels describing color and flavor combinations such as “gold and delicate,” “amber and rich,” and “very dark and strong.”

___________________________________________________________

The syrup area of the supermarket is full of evocative names. You can breakfast with motherly Mrs. Butterworth or manly Hungry Jack or escape into nature with Maple Grove Farms, Spring Tree, or Log Cabin. Sold side by side, genuine maple syrup and so-called pancake syrup (made with high-fructose corn syrup) can range from more than $1 per ounce for the real deal to a mere 14 cents per ounce for an imitation. But, price and product names aside, which tastes best? To find out, we pitted four top-selling national brands of maple syrup against five popular pancake syrups, hoping to find the best one for pouring over pancakes or using in recipes. For good measure, we also threw in the winning mail-order maple syrup from a previous tasting.

Americans love syrup, spending more than $450 million a year on it in supermarkets alone, with pancake syrup vastly outselling real maple syrup. While the two types look alike, and both taste sweet, the similarity ends there. Maple syrup is simply tree sap that has been boiled to reduce its water content and concentrate its sugar. As the sap boils down, it caramelizes and develops a characteristic maple flavor and golden brown color. Pancake syrup, on the other hand, is a manufactured mix of high-fructose corn syrup and other ingredients engineered to taste like maple.

These maple wannabes have their work cut out for them, as it’s not easy to replicate the taste of genuine maple syrup. Its flavors vary enormously—some syrups are rich and complex, with hints of honey, wood, coffee, smoke, caramel, chocolate, and even rum—others are light, bright, and remarkably clean-tasting for something so sweet. Indeed, scientists have identified nearly 300 flavor compounds in maple syrup (though not in every one); these are produced as the various amino acids, phenolic compounds, minerals, salts, and sugars contained in sap interact during boiling.

Still Tapped by Hand

Maple syrup costs much more than pancake syrup for some very good reasons: Its production is labor-intensive, with a short season and limited supply. Sap only runs for about a month at the end of winter, when freezing nights and warmer days turn starch stored in the tree roots into sugar and start it circulating through the tree to fuel spring growth. Workers set taps by hand and move them each year so that the trees can heal. We’ve all seen pictures of buckets on trees and horse-drawn wagons carrying sap to the sugarhouse; farmers today use miles of plastic tubing, which is laid by hand throughout the woods to convey sap. The maple trees grow in a limited area: Quebec produces about 79 percent of the world’s maple syrup, followed by Vermont, with the remainder from other states.

It takes a lot of maple sap to make syrup: Forty gallons boil down to around 1 gallon of syrup. When it reaches the right density, the syrup is filtered and poured hot into containers. To develop a consistent product year after year, large manufacturers start with a specific understanding of their preferred flavor profile, then carefully blend syrup in batches before repasteurizing and bottling it.

The U.S. government enforces standards for maple syrup, requiring a minimum of 66 percent density (a measure of sugar content) and grading the syrup by color. The lightest-colored, most delicate-flavored syrup, tapped at the beginning of the season when the sap first begins flowing, is usually the most expensive—more than $1 per ounce. As the season progresses and the weather warms, the syrup becomes darker and more intensely flavored. Certain influences, such as insect infestations in trees or tapping sap too late in the season, when buds are forming, can produce off-flavors.

Although maple syrup has been poured since Native Americans first discovered the sweetness of maple sap, pancake syrup is a modern invention. The first brand, Log Cabin, concocted in 1887 as a cheaper alternative, originally contained 45 percent maple syrup supplemented by inexpensive corn syrup. As more brands came along, the real maple content shrank; Aunt Jemima, for instance, made its debut in 1966 with just 15 percent maple syrup. By the 1970s, most brands—claiming customers didn’t mind—had eliminated maple syrup from their products, replacing it with a slew of artificial flavorings and additives.

Cloying and Candylike

As soon as we tabulated the results of our tastings, it became clear that the pancake syrups would not do: Whether tasted on waffles or baked in Maple-Pecan Pie, they got the thumbs-down. Not only did most of these products not taste like maple, tasters complained of overpowering butterscotch, vanilla, or caramel notes and an artificial butter flavor that gave the pancake syrups a cloying, “candylike” taste. Most also had an “unnaturally” thick, viscous texture that tasters disliked.

As for the maple syrups, in a tasting a decade ago, we preferred dark syrups with intense maple flavor to the delicate flavor of pricey Grade A Light Amber syrup. Over the years, we have confirmed this preference and do not recommend paying top dollar for the highest-grade syrup. In this tasting, four of the five syrups we sampled were Grade A Dark Amber, meaning each should have had a similar, moderately deep flavor—but some lost points for having less maple flavor than others. Overly intense flavor didn’t win the day, either: Our former winner, a dark Grade B syrup, ranked second overall (though it won the pie tasting—Grade B is often called “cooking syrup” for good reason).

Overwhelming sweetness was also a turnoff, and lab tests confirmed that the lowest-ranked maple syrups had the highest sugar levels. Tasters preferred a good balance of sweetness and maple flavor. Our least favorite syrup had a high level of sugar and weak maple flavor, while our winner embodied a balance of the two.

Any number of environmental factors, including changes in soil, weather, and growing conditions, can account for variations in maple flavor. But why are some maple syrups sweeter than others, when all must fall within a few percentage points of federal standards for sugar density? Density reflects the percentage of all dissolved solids in the syrup; these are mainly sugars, but also include trace amounts of minerals. Experts told us that minute differences in manufacturing—such as boiling the syrup too long, not long enough, or at too high a temperature—can affect the amount of sugar in the final product. The sugar content only needed to vary by a percentage point or two for our tasters to notice the difference.

Low Price, Top Taste

In the end, tasters agreed that one real maple syrup stood out. This syrup—one of the lowest-priced, at 62 cents per ounce—had everything we sought: “potent, clean, intense” maple flavor, moderate sweetness, a consistency that was neither too thick nor too thin, and no off-flavors. We’ll be happy to pour it over our next batch of pancakes and cook with it, too.

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  • Product Tested

    Price*

  • Prices are subject to change.
  • Recommended - Winner

    Maple Grove Farms 100% Pure Grade A Dark Amber Maple Syrup

    “A good balance of maple and sweetness,” “potent,” “clean,” and “intense,” with “good earthy, mapley notes.” “Lovely,” “very sweet and natural,” with a “perfect consistency, not too thick or thin” and “a rich, mapley aftertaste.” In pie, it was “very mild, but tasted real and satisfying.”

    $5.29 for 8.5 ounces (62 cents per ounce)

  • Recommended

    Highland Sugarworks

    While tasters agreed on our favorite mail-order syrup’s “excellent maple flavor,” described as “intense and complex, well-balanced,” with notes of “whiskey” or “molasses,” a few found it “a bit much” when tasted plain. But this dark syrup shone in pie, earning praise for “very rich, deep” maple flavor.

    $16.95 per pint ($1.06 per ounce)

  • Recommended

    Camp Maple Syrup

    Tasters found this syrup “clean” and “mild,” with “light maple flavor” that was “pleasantly thin and sweet.” Some described notes of “wood and coffee”; one said it “tastes like trees and mountains.” In pie, it was “mild” and “barely there.”

    $12.49 for 12.5 ounces ($1 per ounce)

  • Recommended with Reservations

    Spring Tree Pure Maple Syrup

    “A good maple flavor, with thin consistency,” almost “like it wasn’t reduced,” this syrup had a “light body and a slight burned taste,” though it was also deemed “sweet, natural,” and “clearly maple.” A few tasters detected a “slightly acidic” off-note.

    $9.49 for 12.5 ounces (76 cents per ounce)

  • Recommended with Reservations

    Maple Gold Syrup

    Tasters enjoyed the “solid maple flavor” of this contender, but also noted that it was “thin,” “achingly sweet,” and “slightly off-tasting,” with an “astringent” initial flavor and “citrusy” aftertaste.

    $5.29 for 8.5 ounces (62 cents per ounce)

  • Not Recommended

    Kellogg's Eggo Original Syrup

    “Very sugary. Slightly plastic. Maple aftertaste, but weak.” In pie, while a minority of tasters liked its “nice, toasted sweetness,” many complained: “Where’s the maple?” and “Yuck. I can taste the chemicals.” In sum: “What’s the point of being the best of the worst?”

    $3.49 for 23 ounces (15 cents per ounce)

  • Not Recommended

    Aunt Jemima Original Syrup

    A few tasters liked this syrup’s “honey and vanilla” notes; one fondly quipped: “The taste I grew up with. Straightforward corn syrup laced with maple.” But most comments were less forgiving: “Fake, viscous corn syrup,” with a “fake maple smell” and “fake butter flavor.”

    $3.59 for 24 ounces (15 cents per ounce)

  • Not Recommended

    Mrs. Butterworth's Original Syrup

    Tasters likened this syrup to “melted candy,” “cheap butterscotch,” and “what a maple-flavored Life Saver would taste like.” One summed it up: “Sweet, thick, vile.” In pie, it was “saccharine sweet,” with “no off-flavors, but not very mapley either.”

    $3.49 for 24 ounces (15 cents per ounce)

  • Not Recommended

    Log Cabin Pancake Syrup

    The “smooth,” “melted caramel” sweetness of this syrup was inoffensive, but tasters found its “salty, strong artificial butter flavor—like movie-theater popcorn” thoroughly off-putting. In pie, it fared better, but most agreed it was “cloyingly sweet.”

    $3.59 for 24 ounces (15 cents per ounce)

  • Not Recommended

    Hungry Jack Original Syrup

    Tasters described this syrup as “super sweet and sloppy, with a vanilla flavor.” They also said it was “thick and buttery, but tastes like corn syrup” and “more sweet than maple.” Its texture was decried as “so thick you could stand a spoon in it,” “like tar,” and “gloppy.”

    $3.99 for 27.6 ounces (14 cents per ounce)

*PRICES SUBJECT TO CHANGE
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