Monday, January 12, 2015

Maple Syrup: A Sweet Discovery

Happy New Year!

This year I spent the winter holidays in beautiful rural Vermont, where I got an inside glimpse into the fascinating world of maple syrup production. 


During our stay, we were given a private tour of a friend's "sugar shack" (the wooden shed where the delicious syrup is produced), as well as tasty samples. We also visited the slightly kitch, yet informative, New England Maple Museum, which explains how maple syrup production has evolved since its discovery by the Native Americans. I'd like to share a little of its history with you...

What exactly is maple syrup? 

Maple syrup is a substance usually made from the xylem sap of sugar maplered maple, or black maple trees, although it can also be made from other maple species. In cold climates, these trees store starch in their trunks and roots before the winter; the starch is then converted to sugar that rises in the sap in the spring. Maple trees can be tapped by creating holes in their trunks and collecting the extracted sap. The sap is processed by prolonged heating to evaporate much of the water, leaving the concentrated syrup. Surprisingly, it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make just 1 gallon a maple syrup! 

The syrup is then filtered to remove sand-like particles. The filtered syrup is graded and packaged while still hot, usually at a temperature of 82 °C (180 °F) or greater. The containers are turned over after being sealed to sterilize the cap with the hot syrup. Packages can be made of metal, glass, or coated plastic. The syrup can also be heated longer and further processed to create a variety of other delicious maple products, including maple sugarmaple butter or cream, and maple candy or taffy.

A Brief History

Early settlers in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada learned about sugar maples from Native Americans. Various legends exist to explain the initial discovery. One is that the chief of a tribe threw a tomahawk at a tree, sap ran out and his wife boiled venison in the liquid. Another version holds that Native Americans stumbled on sap running from a broken maple branch.                                                                                      

Native Peoples continued to boil down the sap every spring using hollowed out logs into which the sap was poured and rocks heated in a fire were placed in to make the sap boil, thicken and harden into chunks of maple sugar. Early explorers recorded maple sugar as the only source of energy sustaining Native Peoples over the long hard winter months. They also developed rituals around sugar-making, celebrating the Sugar Moon (the first full moon of Spring) with a Maple Dance.
When settlers came with metal tools, they drilled small holes in the trees, whittled wooden spouts and replaced the wooden troughs used by Native Peoples with wooden buckets and covers. They made their maple sugar in large iron kettles suspended over a fire by wooden poles or tripods. Making maple sugar was common in Vermont, being some distance from any seaport where white sugar was imported.

As maple sugaring evolved, arches were built, containing the heat from roaring wood fires and holding large flat pans on top. Constructing buildings to house these “boilers” was the next step. Sugarhouses today still resemble those early structures with the characteristic cupola on the roof allowing the sweet maple scented steam to billow forth. Unfortunately, I won't be there to see the sap collection and evaporation process in person this year. 

The traditional evaporation process, via wood fire, is still used by many syrup producers in Vermont. While production methods have become more efficient since colonial times, the process remains basically unchanged. I noticed that most Vermonters take great pride in their product, taking maple syrup in their coffee instead of sugar and joking that their syrup is of much higher quality than that of their Canadian neighbors. I'm sure Canadians would beg to differ, but it's true that the Canadian region of Quebec holds roughly 75% of the global maple syrup production. Vermont is the largest U.S. producer, claiming roughly 5% of the industry. 
Which grade is right for you?

Maple syrup can be pretty pricey, so you'd better be sure you know what you're in for when you splurge on a bottle. Even directly from the source, expect to pay around $50 a gallon - and MUCH more if you're in Europe. Between all the grades and shades of maple syrup out on the market (not to mention the imposters below!), it can get a little confusing.

All maple syrup is graded according to scales based on its density and translucency.
One would expect "Grade A" to naturally be the best, however, it's really just a question of taste and usage. As you may imagine, the darker the syrup, the more intense the maple flavor. Darker syrups are more commonly used in cooking, while the lighter grades are mainly used directly, such as on pancakes. Personally, I prefer the stronger kick of the darker grades. 

Health Benefits of Maple Syrup

While both are calorie-rich, the main aspect that sets maple syrup apart from refined sugar is the fact that it also contains some minerals and antioxidants. Pure maple syrup contains small amounts of calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese. These minerals play essential roles in your body, including cell formation, immune support, maintaining healthy red blood cells, keeping bones and teeth strong, regulating muscle contractions and balancing fluids.
100 grams of maple syrup contains:
  • Calcium: 7% of the RDA.
  • Potassium: 6% of the RDA.
  • Iron: 7% of the RDA.
  • Zinc: 28% of the RDA.
  • Manganese: 165% of the RDA.

In my opinion, it's hard to find a dish that maple syrup won't compliment.

Interested in incorporating real maple syrup into your cooking? 
Try out some of these delicious recipes:

Maple Roast Turkey and Gravy  (my Thanksgiving standard)
57 Magical Ways to Use Maple Syrup  

I hope you all enjoy a sweet year ahead!

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