Real Food and How to Cook It Now: Maple Syrup

We 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 corn syrup and artificial flavors. “Pure” syrup (and maple sugar, the crystallized, dehydrated version) is as unadulterated a product as it gets, and is all-American, to boot. Its production is natural, but it requires many steps and much patience to produce, and it only happens once a year. Because maple syrup, you see, is not simply tree sap.

A Brief History

Along with corn, squashes and tomatoes, maple products are an indigenous American food. It’s difficult to determine how long ago Native Americans began extracting syrup from maple trees, but legends from tribes in the Northeast abound. In one, a young man named Glooskap, a mythical figure from many tribes’ folklore, woke his village from a syrup-induced stupor and diluted the trees’ sap with water. He then commanded that syrup only run from the maple trees in the winter, while the rest of the year, the village would have to hunt, fish and forage for food. In another story, an Algonquin chief threw a tomahawk at a sugar maple, and the sap that flowed from the branch was used by his wife to cook venison.

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. Soon, the colonists were making their own. Early methods of maple syrup extraction involved drilling small holes into the trees and collecting the sap in buckets; the sap was cooked down in copper kettles and pots, usually in buildings near the woods referred to as “sugarhouses.” After the British Parliament passed the Sugar Act of 1764, which levied higher taxes on imported sugar in their colonies, maple syrup became more popular than ever. Oddly, even though maple trees are found in Europe, the trees’ sap wasn’t used as a sweetener by Europeans until maple syrup was introduced by Americans.

Factual Nibbles

  • The Iroquois tribe holds a Maple Dance festival to celebrate the season for making syrup in the winter, shortly after the new year.
  • What’s in a grade? The grading — and shading — of maple syrup usually indicates the time of season the sap was extracted. Grade A syrups (which range from Light Amber, Medium Amber to Dark Amber) are often from the beginning of the season, while Grade B, with a darker color and more intense flavor, was probably from the last sap of the season.
  • Wondering when the maple syrup will start arriving at the farmstands in your area? Some years take a bit longer to begin the season. This harsh winter, for example, looks to be one.
  • Pure maple syrup is essentially an organic food product; trees do not need to be treated with chemical pesticides in order 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.

Cultivation

Maple tree sap begins as mostly water, with a 2 or 3 percent concentration of sugar. In order 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, so as to run as much syrup from the trees to the same sugarhouse as possible. It takes about 40 gallons of sap from sugar maple trees to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup. Small, 2-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. Today, newer developments in production have sped up the process of extracting water, including passing the syrup through reverse osmosis tanks before boiling, which reduces the boiling process by about half (thereby reducing the amount of energy required to produce the syrup). Also, vacuum systems have been implemented to help aid the sap’s journey from trees to the storage tanks in the sugarhouse. However, making maple syrup can still be done on a small scale by the average hobbyist, using simple taps, buckets or plastic containers, and boiling methods.

Further processing yields maple sugar and maple butter (or maple cream). Generally, even more liquid is evaporated from the syrup to produce crystalline sugar (which is often pressed into maple leaf-shaped candy), or a reduced syrup is whipped, to produce a spreadable maple butter or maple cream.

Seasonality

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 4-6 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, maple syrup’s sugars may settle at the bottom of the container into crystals.

Environmental Impact

The legend of the tomahawk in the tree didn’t represent the most sustainable way of extracting maple syrup from trees. But producing maple syrup, for the most part, is an environmentally sound tradition to this day. In order to protect the trees and maintain their production throughout the years, only small holes are drilled into trees—usually one per tree, unless it’s exceptionally large—and these holes heal naturally. Processing of the raw materials, or 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.

Characteristics

Maple syrup varies by its shade (see Factual Nibbles for more on grading), but is generally a clear, amber-tinted thin syrup. Its most striking characteristic is its distinct, sweet taste. The taste of maple syrup has been described as “woodsy,” not surprisingly due to its source, and having a more “round” sweetness than plain sugar. Unlike a similarly dark, syrupy sweetener, molasses, it does not have bitter notes. Due to the limited, annual season for processing and the costs along with them, thick, artificially flavored substitutes (produced with corn syrup and refined sugar) abound. The thickness and relative mellowness in many of these processed syrups has even become preferred by some consumers over the natural characteristics of maple syrup, which can taste robust in comparison (and appear “too thin”). Or maybe, that’s just what the marketers of industrially produced syrups would like us to believe.

Nutrition

As a natural sweetener, maple syrup or maple sugar are often hailed a more nutritional choice than white sugar. Let’s examine the benefits. Maple syrup is host to a wide range of trace minerals, and a large content of manganese, which helps activate enzymes in the body. It is believed that with today’s American diet heavy with processed foods, we may not get enough of it. Maple syrup also contains a good quantity of zinc, which helps aid the immune system, and polyphenols that can act as antioxidants, helping prevent against inflammatory diseases. Maple syrup has a small amount of vitamins such as B-Vitamins 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 actually slightly higher than the number of calories in the same dose of white sugar. But thanks to the refined, industrial processing of white sugar, it is left with no vitamin and mineral content.

Storage Tips

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, it’s often held in a container (such as an opaque plastic jug) that does not allow sunlight to penetrate. If it’s not, keep it away from direct sunlight in a closed cupboard, for instance, for best flavor.

Cooking Tips

Not just for pouring on pancakes and waffles, maple syrup can be used for a variety of sweetening purposes. 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. My most frequent — and least expected — way of using maple syrup is when whisking together a homemade vinaigrette for a salad. Sometimes you just need a little sweetness to balance out the tart. But instead of granular sugar, which doesn’t dissolve too easily, I reach for a little maple syrup, which gives the dressing a good texture and subtle hint of unique taste. You might not be able to tell it’s syrup, but it’s great!

Recipes

Roasted Cauliflower and Romanesco Salad with Pears and Maple Vinaigrette

(from Not Eating Out in New York)
(makes 2-3 servings)

12 small head cauliflower, trimmed to small florets of even sizes
12 small head romanesco, trimmed to small florets of even sizes
handful of romanesco and cauliflower leaves
1 firm pear, any type (I used Bosc), thinly sliced
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
few leaves fresh thyme (optional)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Toss all the florets and leaves in 1-2 tablespoons olive oil, or just until lightly coated, and a couple pinches of sea salt. Arrange in a single layer on a roasting sheet and roast for 8-10 minutes, or just until lightly browned in parts. Let cool for a few moments before transferring to a bowl.

Whisk the vinegar, maple syrup and about 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a small bowl. Drizzle on the cooling vegetables and toss lightly with the pears. Transfer to a plate and serve warm with the optional fresh thyme for garnish.

Maple Cream Tart

(from Alexandra’s Kitchen)

Tart Shell:
Double recipe for two 9-inch tarts
114 cups all-purpose flour
1 T. sugar
14 tsp. table salt
8 T. unsalted butter
14 C. + 1 T. ice water

1. Whisk flour, sugar and salt together. Cut butter into flour and using the back of a fork or a pastry cutter, incorporate butter into flour mixture until butter is in small pieces. (This can be done in the food processor, too — that’s what I do these days.) Add ice water and continue to stir with fork until mixture comes together to form a mass. Add more ice water if necessary, one tablespoon at a time. Gently form mass into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill for at least 30 minutes and as long as overnight. (Dough can be frozen, too.)

Maple Cream Filling:
1 cup packed light brown sugar
14 cup maple syrup (preferably grade B — I only had grade A, so that’s what I used)
114 cups heavy cream
14 cup all-purpose flour
Creme fraiche or Greek yogurt, for serving

1. Roll dough out into an 11-inch circle. Carefully transfer dough to tart pan. (I always fold the dough in half and in half again to make for an easy transfer.) Press dough against bottom of pan and into sides, making sure the dough on the bottom and sides is even. (See photo.)
2. Prick with a fork and chill in the fridge for at least 20 minutes. Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
3. Line the tart dough with parchment paper, and fill with pie weights (or dried beans or rice). Bake for 20 minutes, then remove the pie weights and parchment, and place back in the oven to cook until the bottom is dry, about 5 minutes more. Remove from the oven and let cool completely.
4. Lower the oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, maple syrup, cream, and flour until smooth. Pour this mixture into the cooled tart crust. (Note: My tart shell shrunk a little bit, so I did not pour all of the custard into the shell. It is a nicely behaved custard in that it doesn’t rise way up and spill all over the place, but I was happy that I, for once, showed restraint and did not pour all of it in because I do think it could have caused a mess. Just use your judgment.) Bake until the maple cream just sets — it should still jiggle a little — 20 to 25 minutes. (Mine took 25 minutes.) Let cool. Serve sliced with dollops of crème fraîche or Greek yogurt. (Store in fridge if making a day in advance. Bring to room temperature briefly before serving.)

 

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