Growing up in the frosty backwoods of Maine, March could be a dreary month. There wasn’t enough snow left to play with, the dirt road we lived on was too muddy for my bike, and the whole world was tinted some sad shade of brown.
Luckily, March also heralded the short but sweet maple syrup season. As soon as the cold winter nights met the sunny days of spring, the sap began to flow. My father and I would march through the woods tapping our maple trees, drilling tiny holes in the trunks and filling them with spigots through which the sap could escape. The sweet, clear liquid then collected in pails hung on the sides of the trees.
Every few days we made the rounds, pouring the sap from the pails into an army of almost certainly antique milk cans stationed in the back of our truck. We drove the sap down the bumpy road to my grandfather’s sugar shack, where my father emptied the milk cans into a large holding tank on the roof. Meanwhile, I would scurry inside the warm, steamy, fragrant hut and join my grandfather at the evaporator. This was a large, shallow vat, situated over an equally enormous wood-burning stove, into which a continuous stream of sap flowed from the holding tank above our heads. My grandfather would stand stirring the sap and stoking the fire until the bubbling nectar reached a precise 219º, indicating that the sugar content was high enough for the liquid to be considered syrup.
Finally, after filtering out any stray sugar particles, we delivered our spoils to my grandmother’s kitchen, where the maple syrup found its way into an assortment of glass jars. The whole process generally concluded with me eating a big bowl of ice cream blanketed in still-warm, golden syrup, a snack more nutritious than you'd think.
Despite its high sugar content, pure maple syrup is a much healthier sweetener than processed white sugar, which is stripped of its nutrients in manufacturing. In fact, a ¼ ; cup serving of maple syrup contains more calcium than the same amount of milk and more potassium than a banana. It’s also a good source of magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and iron. Imitation syrups, on the other hand, consist of little more than high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, and artificial flavoring.
In addition to its nutritional value, pure maple syrup is, in most cases, a great example of sustainable food. Properly tapped and well-tended trees can yield sap for more than 100 years, and many families have been producing maple syrup, a process known as sugaring, from the same group of trees, or sugar bush, for generations. Even dead and diseased trees are used, either as lumber or, if it’s syrup season, to fuel the evaporator. And for small landowners in particular, sugaring provides an ecologically responsible way to supplement ever-dwindling farm incomes.
When the syrup season winds down is the time to check out this scrumptious sweetener. Below are some helpful hints for buying, storing and cooking with pure maple syrup.
Buying maple syrup
Often, larger producers of maple syrup blend the products of thousands of farms through the course of a season, for convenience and market uniformity. This can destroy the unique character of a syrup tapped in a particular region at a particular time of year, resulting in a less flavorful and unique experience. If you live in a region where maple syrup is produced, seek out local sugarhouses that practice sustainable harvesting.
Otherwise, look for U.S. certified organic maple syrup, as some syrup makers unfortunately continue to use formaldehyde pellets and other illegal additives. Buying organic also ensures that your syrup is free of artificial ingredients and dyes, from trees that are free of pesticides and chemicals and from forests that have not been over-tapped for short-term gain.
There are four distinct grades of maple syrup to choose from, as assigned by the USDA. Each has its own color, flavor and popular usage, outlined below:
Storing maple syrup
Keep unopened containers in a cool, dry place. Because pure maple syrup contains no preservatives, be sure to refrigerate it once opened. If you're looking to stock up during syrup season, the freezer is ideal for long-term storage, as pure maple syrup will not freeze.
Cooking with maple syrup
Although most popular on pancakes, there are many ways to integrate maple syrup into your cooking. Use it in a glaze, add it to frosting, or mix it with oil and vinegar to make a tasty vinaigrette. You can even use it in your favorite cake recipe - just substitute ¾ ; cup syrup for 1 cup white sugar, reduce the liquid in the recipe by about 3 tablespoons, and lower the oven temperature by 25º.
Simple maple tips
Maple syrup comes in
Find maple syrup at a farmers' market near you.