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Exploring Maple Syrup: History, Trivia, and Recipes

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Real maple syrup is a treat that cannot be duplicated with artificial flavors.

Real maple syrup is a treat that cannot be duplicated with artificial flavors.

The Origin of Maple Syrup

Long before European settlers began to make their home in North America, long before explorers from across the Atlantic first touched these shores, the colorful and majestic maple trees of the land were regarded for their beauty and their sugary sap.

There is no written record of when this gift of the gods was found or which tribe of people made the discovery. There are fanciful tales of a tomahawk being flung into a tree, creating a gash that flowed into a conveniently placed vessel. Other more plausible stories are woven of a tree dripping sap, which was then used for marinating and cooking a venison hunter’s catch.

A beautiful maple leaf

A beautiful maple leaf

There is a tree with the thickness and shape of a large walnut tree. It remained unused for a long time until someone tried to cut one down, releasing a kind of sugar that they found to be as tasty and as delicate as any good wine from Orleans or Beaune.

— André Thévet, French explorer, 1557

By the mid-15th century, European settlers and fur traders were employing more refined tools to extract the sap. Hatchets were replaced with bores and hand drills.

In his story “An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith,” that Jamestown settler recorded this description:

Shortly after we came to this place the squaws began to make sugar. We had no large kettles with us this year, and they made the frost, in some measure, supply the place of fire, in making sugar. Their large bark vessels, for holding the stock-water, they made broad and shallow; and as the weather is very cold here, it frequently freezes at night in sugar time; and the ice they break and cast out of the vessels. I asked them if they were not throwing away the sugar? They said no; it was water they were casting away, sugar did not freeze, and there was scarcely any in that ice. They said I might try the experiment, and boil some of it, and see what I would get. I never did try it; but I observed that after several times freezing, the water that remained in the vessel, changed its colour and became brown and very sweet.

Harvesting maple syrup

Harvesting maple syrup

Sugaring Parties

By the 1800s, the efficiency of the collection was at full bore (pun intended). Spring thaw signaled the advent of annual “sugaring parties.” With holes bored, spouts inserted, and buckets ceremoniously hung strategically to collect the sweet sap in the most efficient manner, the contents of filled buckets were transferred to larger vessels which were then transported via wagon or sled to the base camps where large pots (set outdoors or in “sugar shacks”) were set over fires to boil down the sap to a thick, tasty syrup.

A rural sugar shack

A rural sugar shack

Modern Maple Tree Tapping

There is a certain romanticism surrounding the tapping of individual maple trees, checking their progress each day, and then carefully emptying the sap buckets into larger receptacles to be studiously boiled and reduced from a watery substance to a rich amber-colored syrup.

But that doesn't happen anymore, at least not in the commercial processing of maple sap. Plastic tubing that routes the sap directly to large tanks has replaced the individual spouts and buckets. Some manufacturers even employ vacuuming systems that suck the sap directly from the tree.

However, when I reach for a bottle of pure maple syrup, I must admit that I still envision the old-fashioned method of processing. It brings to my mind a more peaceful, gentle world, a cadre of New Englanders appreciating the gifts of nature, toiling and working together, a bonding, a community.

How to Select and Store Pure Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is categorized by color. This information on the correlation between color and flavor is from Bon Appetit:

Golden color, delicate taste: Fruity and subtle, it’s easily overshadowed but makes the best substitute for white sugar when baking.

Amber color, rich taste: Popular for all-around use, it’s the ideal table syrup for pancakes and French toast.

Dark color, robust taste: Bold in flavor, it holds its own in savory dishes like braises and in whiskey cocktails.

Very dark color, strong taste: With the most powerful maple flavor, it delivers the biggest bang for your buck—use sparingly!

To prevent mold or fermenting, store opened bottles of maple syrup in the refrigerator for up to a year. Syrup can be kept even longer in the freezer—don't worry, because of its high sugar content, it will not freeze solid.

Is It Healthier Than Sugar?

Maple syrup is not a magic elixir—it's not health food. Simply stated, 2/3 of maple syrup us simple sucrose. However, unlike refined sugar, it does contain some nutrients:

One-third cup of pure maple syrup contains:

  • Calcium: 7% of the RDI
  • Potassium: 6% of the RDI
  • Iron: 7% of the RDI
  • Zinc: 28% of the RDI
  • Manganese: 165% of the RDI

Source: Healthline

Can I Substitute Maple Syrup for Sugar in Baking?

Yes ... and no. You can use maple syrup instead of granulated sugar, but you need to keep these rules in mind:

  • Because syrup is liquid, you cannot do a 1:1 substitution (the added liquid would skew your ratio of wet to dry ingredients). For every 1 cup of syrup used, reduce the other liquid(s) in your recipe by 3 tablespoons.
  • Reduce the baking temperature by 25 degrees F. because syrup caramelizes faster than sugar.
  • Add 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda to your recipe. Why? Maple syrup is slightly acid, and the soda is alkaline (they will balance each other out).

Sources: King Arthur Flour, Bon Appetit

Trivia

  • There are three species of maple that are most commonly tapped for syrup production, the sugar maple (Acer saccharum), the black maple (A. nigrum), and the red maple (A. rubrum).
  • The first evaporator, used to heat and concentrate sap, was patented in 1858. In the 1870s and 80s, evaporator designs were developed and improved upon. By the 1890s, evaporators were produced in mass supply.
  • There is an International Maple Syrup Institute (established in 1975 and located in Spencerville, Ontario, Canada)
  • Maple sap is about 98 percent water.
  • It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup.
  • "Sugaring" season is very short (early February to end of March) and the maple trees used to produce the sap are located in a small portion of the globe (the Northeastern United States and Canada).
  • Maple syrups are not all the same. Just as with coffee beans or chocolate, there are subtle differences in the influence of soil and water.
Maple-Brown Sugar-Cinnamon Overnight Oats

Maple-Brown Sugar-Cinnamon Overnight Oats

Recipes

Make use of real maple syrup with these delicious recipes.

Maple-Brown Sugar-Cinnamon Overnight Oats

"Overnight oats" is a grab-and-go breakfast concept that caught fire a few years ago and is giving no indications of slowing down. Even my daughter asked me for recipes, acknowledging that taking the time for a sensible, healthy breakfast can be a challenge. Overnight oats are whole-grains layered (typically) in a mason jar and chilled in the refrigerator with dried fruits, nuts, and flavorings to create an oatmeal-like meal without hovering over a stove. And, unlike microwaveable instant oatmeal, these jars contain whole grains, more fiber, and less processed sugar.

Maple snickerdoodles

Maple snickerdoodles

Maple Snickerdoodles

What are snickerdoodles? At first glance, you might assume that they are merely sugar cookies that are rolled in cinnamon sugar. No, there is a specific ingredient that is key in the taste and texture of snickerdoodles. True doodles contain cream of tartar. It provides a slight tang and creates a chewy (rather than puffy) texture.

Michelle does them right and keeps the standard cinnamon-sugar cloak, but the dough is sweetened not with granulated sugar but with pure maple syrup. The flavor shines through.

Savory Butternut Squash Soup

Ingredients

  • ¾ cup chopped onion, cut in 1-inch pieces
  • ¾ cup sliced carrots (1/2-inch thick slices)
  • 4 whole cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 (2¾-pound) butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch dice (about 7 cups)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 cups chicken broth, plus more if needed
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • Pinch cayenne pepper
  • crisp cook crumbled bacon for garnish (optional)
  • grated cheese for garnish (optional)

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Place onion, carrots, garlic cloves, and squash in a large bowl; drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Toss until all vegetables are coated in oil.
  3. Spread vegetables in one layer on a rimmed baking sheet.
  4. Roast in preheated oven until squash is tender and easily pierced with the tip of a knife, about 20 minutes. Allow vegetables to cool a bit.
  5. Place softened vegetables into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse 4 or 5 times. Add 1 cup of chicken broth and maple syrup. Process until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl twice.
  6. Transfer the mixture to a large stockpot. Stir in the remaining 2 cups of chicken broth. Place the pot over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low; slowly simmer to blend flavors, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat.
  7. If the soup seems too thick, add a few tablespoons of water or chicken broth. Stir in apple cider vinegar, a pinch of salt (or to taste), and cayenne pepper. Garnish servings of soup with bacon and cheese.
Maple-dijon chicken

Maple-dijon chicken

Maple-Dijon Chicken

This recipe is a few years old (created in 2011). Jenna states that it is an adaptation of a meal that was originally published in Cherie Mercer Twoy's book, The I Love Trader Joe's Cookbook.

Jenna calls this "man-pleasing chicken." I'd prefer to use the term "family-pleasing." Chicken thighs are oven-baked in a mixture of dijon mustard and maple syrup. This combination makes a rich sweet-savory sauce that is truly finger-licking good. I have one word of advice, however—line your baking dish with aluminum foil to ease in cleanup (the mustard-dijon sauce bakes on the edges and corners and is the Dickens to remove!)

Maple-soy glazed Brussels sprouts and butternut squash

Maple-soy glazed Brussels sprouts and butternut squash

Maple-Soy Glazed Brussels Sprouts and Butternut Squash

Ohmygoodness, where do I begin when talking about Gina Homolka? A little over 10 years ago, she wove together her loves of healthy cooking (converting high-fat, high-calorie recipes) and beautiful photography and developed the blog Skinny Taste. Five published cookbooks later, and with 3 million visitors a month to her website, she is my inspiration and who I want to be when I grow up.

Her recipe for maple-glazed Brussels sprouts and butternut squash brings together two of my favorite autumn vegetables. Every bite has a sweet-salty bite from the marriage of maple syrup and soy sauce, and everything roasts together on one rimmed baking sheet to make cooking a breeze and cleanup even easier.

Oh, and did I mention that there's bacon?!

Maple-crusted salmon

Maple-crusted salmon

Maple-Crusted Salmon

Lexie is the brains behind the blog Foodie Crush (what a great name!). Her recipe for maple-crusted salmon caught my attention because I love salmon. I am fortunate enough to live in the Pacific Northwest, where fresh seafood is plentiful, and salmon is a heart-healthy meal we try to add to our recipe rotation as often as possible.

Heat up your broiler, and you can have this focus of your meal ready in 10 minutes. I would serve it with rice pilaf or a baked sweet potato and a tossed salad. Or, if the weather is warm and you want a lighter meal, serve the cooked glazed salmon on top of a bed of mixed greens with fresh tomato.

© 2019 Linda Lum