What Is Maple Syrup?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Bottles of maple syrup

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Maple syrup is a natural sweetener derived from the concentration of maple tree sap. In early spring, maple trees are tapped, the sap is collected, then it's cooked down into a rich, flavorful syrup. A product exclusive to North America and enjoyed there most often, Vermont is the best-known producer of real maple syrup. It's also made in other states in the northeastern U.S. as well as the eastern region of Canada. Maple syrup is most often enjoyed on breakfast foods like pancakes, though it's also used in sweets and cooked into glazes, sauces, and adds a sweetness to savory dishes.

Fast Facts

  • Varieties: Grade A Golden, Grade A Amber, Grade A Dark
  • Substitutes: 1 cup sugar for 3/4 cup maple syrup, increasing the recipe's liquid by 3 tablespoons; or equal amount of honey
  • Storage: Cool, dark place when unopened; refrigerator once open
  • Shelf Life: 1 to 2 years or indefinitely in the freezer

Maple Syrup vs. Pancake Syrup

Pure maple syrup is made by boiling maple sap until it contains no more than 33 percent water, leaving a 66 percent concentration of sugar. Imitation maple syrup—usually sold as pancake syrup—must be labeled as such. It's generally made mostly corn syrup with no more than 3 percent pure maple syrup. Some imitations may contain only artificial maple extract.

Varieties

Maple syrup is graded according to its color and when the sap was collected. The later in the season, the darker the syrup becomes. In 2015, the USDA revamped its maple syrup grading system to better fit those of Vermont and international standards and simplify the choices for home cooks.

  • Grade A Golden is the lightest and has a mild flavor that's good for drizzling on desserts and breakfast food.
  • Grade A Amber has a rich flavor and a good choice for table syrup because of its classic maple flavor.
  • Grade A Dark is the most flavorful and excellent for cooking.
  • Processing Grade is very dark, the last of the season, and used for maple-flavored commercial products.

Maple Syrup Uses

Most people are familiar with maple syrup as a topper for pancakes and waffles or in sweets. It also has other applications in savory dishes and works particularly well with vegetables and as a glaze for meats. Maple syrup can be used to make barbecue sauce and other condiments and it's a good all-purpose ingredient added directly to recipes without additional prep.

Maple syrup taffy, also called "sugar on snow," is a favorite pastime for kids as well as adults when the sap begins to flow in eastern Canada and New England. It entails heating maple syrup to the soft-ball stage, pouring it in lines on a snow-filled tray, then rolling the candy up onto a small wooden stick. Vermont residents also have an unusual tradition of celebrating the sugaring season by snacking on a combination of maple syrup, plain raised doughnuts, and dill pickles. Each bite of the doughnut is dipped in syrup and eaten, with bits of dill pickle interspersed about every two to three bites. Proponents of this intriguing combination say the sweet and sour tastes complement each other.

How to Cook With Maple Syrup

For many uses, maple syrup requires no preparation. It can be used as-is, drizzled on top of desserts, breakfast food, or yogurt and stirred into salad dressings, beverages, or ice cream. It's also incorporated into sour cream, whipped cream, and frostings.

Other uses require lightly cooking or boiling maple syrup with other ingredients. With a little butter, it becomes maple cream and it adds a delicious sweetness in a simmered barbecue sauce. You'll also find it simmered into glazes for meats and vegetables. Baked goods will typically use maple syrup as a liquid sweetener, added directly to the dough or batter.

Many recipes will indicate which grade of maple syrup to use. For those that don't, dark syrup is often preferred, especially in cooking applications, though amber makes a good alternative. Golden syrup can be too lightly flavored for many recipes.

What Does It Taste Like?

Maple syrup has a distinct flavor all it's own and it varies with the type of tree, region, and when it was collected. It's generally a rich caramel-like taste with hints of woody vanilla. As the sap is harvested throughout the year, the flavor is intensified. Pure maple syrup is three times as sweet as regular table sugar.

Maple Syrup Substitute

If you are planning on using pure maple syrup in place of sugar in a baked recipe, you will need to adjust the recipe. Use 3/4 cup pure maple syrup for 1 cup of granulated sugar and reduce the dominant liquid in the recipe by 3 tablespoons for each cup of maple syrup used. Keep in mind that using maple syrup in place of sugar will give a brownish tinge and also cause the baked goods to brown more quickly due to the high sugar content.

For substitution of maple syrup in general cooking, use three-fourths the amount of maple syrup as sugar. When substituting maple syrup for honey, use a one-to-one ratio. If you really find yourself in a bind without maple syrup, you can try mock maple syrup, but don't expect it to come anywhere near the real thing in taste.

Maple Syrup Recipes

Maple syrup's sweet, rich flavor is cooked into candy, frosting, sauces and condiments, and baked goods. It's also excellent for sweet-savory bean, vegetable, and meat dishes.

Where to Buy Maple Syrup

In the syrup section of any grocery store, you're likely to find a myriad of pancake syrup options. Look a little closer and you're sure to come across a few smaller bottles of real maple syrup. You can also find high-quality maple syrup at specialty stores and can buy it online, either through vendors or direct from the producers. If you live in the ideal region for maple syrup production, you can also tap maple trees and make it yourself.

Available in glass bottles or plastic jugs, pure maple syrup is more expensive than other syrups and higher quality maple syrup will cost more. Additionally, you can buy as little or as much as you like, from just a few ounces to pints, quarts, and gallons. It's also available in large bulk quantities.

Storage

Pure maple syrup should be stored in a cool, dark place for up to 2 years until opened and then refrigerated after opening where it will last 1 year. Since pure maple syrup will not freeze if properly made, the freezer is a good place to store it almost indefinitely. Improperly stored maple syrup can grow harmful and moldy toxins, in which case you must toss it out.

Bring the syrup to room temperature or warm it before serving. The microwave works well for warming maple syrup. Use a microwave-safe container and heat on high from 30 to 60 seconds per 1/2 cup, depending on how cold it is and the power level of your microwave.

Nutrition and Benefits

Though maple syrup is a sugar, it is considered one of the healthier sweeteners on the market. It is all-natural, vegan, and more nutritious than refined sugar. Pure maple syrup has approximately 52 calories per tablespoon, where white sugar has about 49 calories. In that sense (and in regard to carbs), the two are equal and maple syrup should not be seen as a low-sugar sweetener. However, because it's sweeter, you will not need to use as much maple syrup.

Maple syrup has nutrients that sugar does not, including calcium, manganese, magnesium, and potassium. The Vermont Maple Sugar Makers note that its antioxidant value is very high, falling in between raw carrots and cabbage.