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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Maple Syrup But Didn’t Know Who to Ask
Maple syrup has been around for hundreds of years, and there is a nostalgia attached to the fact that its production continues today as it has for generations. Sugarmakers of this generation, however, have at their disposal a number to timesaving and laborsaving innovations, from plastic tubing that carries sap directly from the trees to sap storage tanks, to reverse-osmosis machines that remove moisture even before the sap enters the evaporator pan. These new technologies in no way diminish the flavor, quality, and wholesome goodness of the maple syrup. Real maple syrup is a treasure, made more interesting by the fact that it’s only possible to produce it in the northern part of North America. Specific weather conditions create the magic that allows the sugarmaker to transform watery sap into authentic golden syrup that can only be labeled Pure Maple Syrup. And in the case of our syrup PURE UPPER MICHIGAN MAPLE SYRUP.
How Was Maple Syrup Discovered?
Legend has it that the first maple syrup maker was an Iroquois woman, the wife of Chief Woksis. One late-winter morning, the story goes, the chief headed out on one of his hunts, but not before yanking his tomahawk from the tree where he’d thrown it the night before. On this particular day the weather turned quite warm, causing the tree’s sap to run and fill a container standing near the trunk. The woman spied the vessel and, thinking it was plain water, cooked their evening meal in it. The boiling that ensued turned the sap to syrup, flavoring the chief’s meal as never before. And thus began the tradition of making maple syrup.
How’s It Made?
The sap of a maple tree looks like water. It tastes quite a bit like water, too, with just a hint of mapley sweetness. The particular sap used to make syrup is different from that produced by the tree at other times of the year. This sap flows in the late winter and early spring (around the time of what the Native Americans called the “sugar moon”). After the trees start to bud and produce leaves, the quality of the sap dramatically changes and cannot be used to produce syrup. Here’s what’s required to turn sap into syrup:
- The weather: nights in the twenties, days warming to about 40ºF.
- The time: it takes about 5 1/5 days for the average tree to produce about 40 gallons of sap ~ and that’s enough for one gallon of syrup!
- The equipment: sap is collected through plastic tubing, boiled down in a special evaporator, monitored for viscosity and sugar density, then filtered, graded and hot-packed.
Is All Real Maple Syrup Good?
Absolutely not. So many variables influence the taste of the syrup: soil, climate, weather, the health of the trees, and the care and artistry of the sugar maker are a few. Think of it like wine ~ all Chardonnay is not the same. You could grade all the maple syrup in a year’s production the same way some people grade all Chardonnay produced in a certain vintage. Many factors can make one maple syrup much better tasting than another ~ or much worse!
Here are some possible defects caused by poor production (these are just a sampling of about four times as many potential problems!):
- Musty flavor
- Bleachy or detergent flavor
- Oily flavor
- Burnt flavor
- Bitter, green flavor
- Metallic flavor
- Salty flavor
Good sugar makers attend to detail and strive to make the best syrup possible. Many big packers, though, blend the better syrup with the worse to reduce labor and lower cost; this is the jug wine of the syrup world.
Is Maple Syrup Organic?
Because the trees are wild plants in a wild environment, they’re inherently, naturally organic. Most of the issues of organic agriculture just aren’t involved here. For example, it wouldn’t occur to most of us to fertilize mature hundred-year-old trees. If the forest is responsibly maintained and judiciously tapped, there should be no need to enrich the soil; so fertilizer just doesn’t enter the picture in most syrup production. The same applies to pesticides, herbicides, etc. For this reason many sugar makers (especially small ones) have never applied for organic certification. This is not to say that certification isn’t a helpful tool; only that any organic, sustainable agriculture is worth supporting; and traditional, responsibly produced maple syrup, whether certified organic or not, is an environmentally sound, sustainable product.
Care of Your Syrup
Your fridge is the best place for a bottle after opening; it will keep for a year or more. If it develops sugar crystals, you can warm the syrup to dissolve them. If any surface mold appears, (extremely unlikely in the fridge), heat the syrup to 200 degrees and skim the mold off the top. Wash the bottle out with soap and very hot water, dry it thoroughly and replace the cooled syrup. Note: cans can give a metallic taste to syrup ~ if you’ve bought canned syrup, decant it into a clean glass jar or bottle.
Before returning maple syrup to the refrigerator, rinse the cap in hot water and wipe the top of the jug so the cap will be easier to remove the next time.
A serving suggestion: if you’re feeding folks who are used to pancake syrup (especially children) consider serving the syrup chilled. It’s much thicker when it’s cold, and this is the texture many people expect from syrup. If you want to warm it so as not to cool down your pancakes, either place the bottle in a container of hot water, or put it in a measuring cup covered with plastic wrap and zap it briefly in the microwave.
We’re not the only creatures who practice sugar maple tapping. The North American squirrel, Sciurus carolinensusk, also taps during sugaring season by gouging the bark of young maple trees with their two front teeth and drinking the sap that flows.
Substituting Maple Syrup in Cooking
Use only three-fourths the amount of maple syrup as sugar in a recipe. For example, if a recipe says to use ¼ cup (4 tablespoons) of sugar, use 3 tablespoons of maple syrup instead.
For every cup of sugar, substitute ¾ cup to 1 ½ cups maple syrup, and reduce the dominant liquid in the recipe by 2 to 4 tablespoons. Don’t cut back on a liquid that is likely to alter the flavor or texture of a recipe, such as the liqueur, oil, or egg, when you have 2 cups of milk to play with.
You may also need to add ¼ to ½ teaspoon baking soda to reduce maple syrup’s slight acidity; this will not be necessary in recipes with buttermilk, sour milk, or sour cream.
If you are substituting maple syrup for honey, I’ve found you can almost always succeed with an equivalent substitution.
Maple syrup not only adds a brownish tinge to whatever it is you’re cooking, but also tends to make baked goods brown more quickly than sugar does (reducing the oven temperature by 25ºF sometimes compensates for that).
Sweetness and Moisture:
Basically, you have to account for two things when substituting maple syrup for sugar in a recipe: that syrup is sweeter than sugar, and that it adds extra moisture to the recipe.
In addition to tasting great, pure maple syrup offers some nutritional benefits.
Maple syrup has about 50 calories per tablespoon.
Pure maple syrup has calcium (13.4 mg per tablespoon), potassium (40.8 mg per tablespoon), magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, and iron.
Trace amounts of B2 (riboflavin), B5 (pantothenic acid), niacin, and folic acid.