Maple syrup, that delicious, golden stuff we drizzle on our pancakes in the morning, is a unique part of our culture here in northern New England. No pancake breakfast would be complete without a pitcher of it on the table. But what is maple syrup? What makes it a "natural sweetener"? Should you buy organic? And how is syrup made? Read on.
What is Maple Syrup?
Maple syrup is the thick, sweet syrup that's made from boiling down the sap of the sugar maple tree. A range of grades are available, ranging from Grade A ("Fancy", Medium Amber, and Dark Amber) to the even darker Grade B. You'll often pay a premium in price for the lighter grades in grocery stores. Commonly served to top pancakes, waffles and French toast, it's also regaining popularity in cooking, especially the darker, more strongly flavored "B" grade.
We're more conscious than ever these days of where our food comes from, and we've realized that it pays to read the label. Pure maple syrup is indeed a natural sweetener. But don't confuse real maple syrup with those labeled "maple-flavored syrup", "pancake syrup", or any of the other imitations: those are actually made with high-fructose corn syrup, and usually contain no maple at all. A bottle of real maple syrup, usually labeled "pure", contains only maple syrup.
While real maple syrup truly is "natural", it's still sugar. After all, it's the sweet sap of the sugar maple tree that makes the leaves turn brilliant red in the New England autumn. The process of boiling the sap concentrates the sugar, until the final product is actually sweeter than cane sugar.
Is Maple Syrup Organic?
In recent years, the organic label has gained popularity as a marketing tool, leading many farmers and food producers to adopt practices that adhere to legal organic standards. This allows them to mark their product as "certified organic".
In this case, though, pay no attention to "organic" on the label. Nearly all real maple syrup is in fact organic, though you may or may not see it labeled as such on the shelf. The production process, while labor-intensive, is surprisingly uncomplicated.
How is Maple Syrup Made?
If you've ever taken a drive on a New England back road in March, you may have noticed a network of black or purple tubing attached to tree trunks at the roadside. That's a sure sign you are driving through a sugarbush, or stand of productive maple trees.
If you took that drive in early spring, you may have seen gray metal buckets hanging from those trees, or clouds of steam billowing from a sugarhouse during boiling. Maple syrup production methods vary depending on the size of the operation, but the method I'll describe to you is the one used by the individual sugarmakers and small farmers in rural New England.
"Sugaring season" is the bridge between winter and spring, that window of just a few weeks when the sap starts to rise in the trees and can be collected for boiling. Warm, sunny days and cooler nights with below-freezing temperatures are essential for a good sap run.
But before the sap starts to run, the sugarmaker prepares by tapping the trees. Each sugar maple tree has small hole or two drilled a couple of inches into the trunk. Then a spout is driven into the hole, and it's through this spout that the sap leaves the tree, drop by drop, and enters either the bucket or the pipeline.
After enough sap has been collected and brought to a storage tank, the boiling begins. It takes about 40 gallons of maple sap to produce one gallon of syrup. The sap is boiled in large, flat pans to maximize the surface area in contact with the wood fire below. After hours of boiling, at the precise moment when the sweetening sap reaches the density of syrup, it's poured off and filtered. The grade of each batch is determined by color, and then the filtered maple syrup is bottled and labeled.
Pass the Syrup, Please
If you like the maple flavor, you'll appreciate the taste of real maple syrup, whether it's on your pancakes or baked into homemade cookies. Check the label before you buy, and seek out a sugarmaker's gift shop if you can. Not only will you be assured it's the real thing, but you'll probably pay less than you would in the grocery store. And if you ever do see that steam rising from a sugarhouse roof in the spring, stop for a moment and take it in: the air will smell maple-y sweet!