Maple syrup over warm pancakes is a perfect food marriage, but this sweet syrup is a lot more than just a perfect pancake topping. Maple syrup is natural sap and has important nuances - just like your favourite wine or small batch whiskey. We caught up with top Maple Experts and Producers in Vermont, Quebec and Ontario, Canada, where the world's majority of maple syrup comes from, to help you understand Maple Syrup 101.
HOW MAPLE SYRUP IS MADE
First thing is first - Maple is made from Maple trees (we said this is 101, right?). Over 70% of the world's maple syrup comes from Canada, with nearly the remainder coming from the New England region of the United States. It's harvested between March and April when nights are still cold. The fluctuation between the cold nights and warmer days creates pressure that pushes water from the soil up and down the tree. This creates the perfect environment to collect the sap. At just the perfect time, trees are 'tapped' to get the maple sap. After harvesting the sap, it's transported to a sugar house where the sap is boiled down to become maple syrup. It reduces a ton! About 10 gallons of sap reduces to make only .25 gallons (less than 1/40th) of Maple Syrup.
HOW TO SELECT MAPLE SYRUP
Whatever you do, don't mistake maple syrup for pancake syrup. Those processed sugar brands found in your grocery isle are corn syrup which is completely different than maple syrup.
Local, local, local
"Maple syrup is 100% pure sugar maple sap", says Paul Brooks, owner of Brooks Farm in Ontario, Canada. "Buying maple syrup from a local farm will be buying the best syrup you can buy. If you purchase maple syrup from a grocery store, it's likely from thousands of farms and then blended together for consistency sake. If you buy from a local farm, you're buying from one or two maple forests."
"When buying from a small producer, clarity of the product and flavor are key," says Willard "Jeff" Smith, 7th Generation Sugarmaker at Smith Maple Crest Farm in Vermont. "Like a great wine, maple syrup is affected by the region and soil that the trees grow in, and it can be fun to track what region of syrup yours came from."
STORING MAPLE SYRUP
"A well packaged maple syrup will last a long time. If your producer did a good job and bottled it at around 185 degrees, then it can last a couple of years unopened. Once opened though, we advise to keep it in the fridge" says Richard Potvin, founder of Maple Syrup World in Montreal, Quebec.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF MAPLE SYRUP
There's lots of reason to add maple syrup into your regular diet for healthy eating.
"Maple syrup and maple sugar is the healthiest and most natural sugar you can find. Often people believe it's honey, but honey is actually second best. Maple Syrup has antioxidants, a lower score on the glycemic index, and overall is a much healthier source of sugar as compared to cane and corn sugar." says Paul Brooks.
"Maple syrup contains Phenolic Compounds, which are also found in well-known and celebrated healthy foods like tea, berries, red wine and flax seeds" says Bob Jakeman, President of Jakeman's Maple Products in Ontario, Canada. Phenolic compounds elicit anti-inflamatory and anti-diabetic effects.
WHAT MAKES MAPLE SYRUP SO UNIQUE?
Aside from this sweet sap coming from a tree, there's a lot more that impacts the flavour than you might realize. Richard Potvin in Montreal says you need to think about the entire ecosystem.
"A maple farm is a complex ecosystem and it has a massive influence on the maple syrup. Each producer has a different type of land, some are flat like grassland some are straight up in the mountains. Some have brooks, bedrock, ponds... Each will create they're own environment for the maple trees and lets not forget that a forest is made not only of maple trees! Different types of trees will influence the maple syrup production, as well. If you buy from a large grocery store, the chain probably buys from a bottling company. They tend to blend maple syrup to have a consistent taste and color - which is great - but you loose the specificity of the unique producer. If you buy maple syrup straight from your local producer, you have the equivalent of a single blend whisky, a single blend maple syrup. You can then taste the terroir (the nuances of the land), and discover the full flavor of a single blend maple syrup!"
But it doesn't just stop there. Paul Brooks encourages people to seek out small farms. "If you're lucky enough to buy syrup from a farm using traditional firewood evaporator you'll find it smoky and even more rich".
VARIETIES OF MAPLE SYRUP
There are four grades of Maple Syrup. In 2015 the grades became universal to ensure international standards of production.
Grade A Golden
The lightest of the varieties, it's both light in colour and delicate in taste.
Best Uses: Maple sugar, Maple spread, Maple candy
Grade A Amber
This is the preferred table syrup. It's rich in taste.
Best Uses: Amber grade is perfect for pancakes, breakfast cereal, ice-cream and desserts
Grade A Dark Robust
This is stronger in flavour.
Best Uses: Bob Jakeman suggests Dark Robust Maple Syrup when brazing meat, baking or flavouring candied vegetables.
Grade A Very Dark
This is the darkest and richest of the maple syrups. It should be used when you want to impart lots of flavour. It can be a touch bitter by itself.
Best Uses: Jeff Smith recommends this in baked beans
MAPLE SYRUP TIPS & TRICKS
Bob Jakeman and his whole family are passionate about maple. His wife has published a book with over 100 maple recipes! His cousin, a former chef at McMaster University, had a favourite recipe for salad dressing. "He mixed orange juice with maple to make a wonderful flavour. The citric acid perfectly blends with maple syrup."
Coffee and Tea
"We are only limited by our imagination when using maple syrup it is a great sweetener in coffee, tea, lemonade and makes wonderful maple milk." says Willard "Jeff" Smith.
With Peanut Butter
"This has been a family secret, but I'll let it out." says Richard Potvin. "Toast with peanut butter and maple cream. It beats everything".
Replacing White Sugar
To replace white sugar in your recipe, substitute 2/3 cups of Maple Syrup for every 1 cup of white sugar. If you're baking, you'll also want to reduce the overall liquid in your recipe just slightly - about 1/4 of a cup. By adding Maple Syrup to your recipe rather than white sugar, your dish will turn out darker. If baking your dish will also darken quicker.
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