What is Maple Syrup?
Maple syrup is the sap from maple trees that has been collected, heated, and concentrated down to a sweet liquid. This is different than what is sold at the grocery store as “pancake syrup,” which is primarily corn syrup.
Sugar Maple Trees begin to produce sugary water called sap when the temperatures reach above 40 degrees F during the day and below 32 degrees F at night. The freezing and thawing temperature fluctuations push sap through the tree so that it has the nutrients needed to grow. You can read a more comprehensive explanation of this process here.
How it’s Made
To make maple syrup, holes are drilled into the maple trees to collect sap. The sap is then transferred into a bucket or tubed into a storage container, ready to be processed. The sap is about 2% sugar content, and the process of making maple syrup is simply reducing the water content, usually with heat. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.
Maple season usually starts in late February and lasts about a month and a half in the Adirondacks. The season ends when leaves start to bud on the maple trees and the sap becomes bitter. See how maple is made at Parker Family Maple in Chazy, NY.
Maple syrup made in New York State is graded into four distinct categories. The grade is determined by the time in the season the sap is collected, which influences the color and flavor of the end product. The lightest and most delicate syrup is made from the first sap of the season. Generally, the darkest and most robust flavored syrup is made from sap collected later in the season.
History and Facts
Indigenous people living in what is currently the Northeastern United States and Southeastern Canada have been harvesting maple for thousands of years. They would set up a “sugar camp” in a sugar bush when the sap was flowing to take advantage of this season. It was customary to celebrate the arrival of the maple flow with a Maple Festival, and still is in many communities today. Fresh sap was used as cooking water, producing a sweet condensed liquid at the end of cooking. Syrup was made by placing hot stones from a fire into a container of sap. Granulated maple sugar was a staple flavoring and sweetener for many dishes, as it was easier to transport and store than liquid.
When European migrants came to the region, Mowhawk people taught them about harvesting maple sap. Europeans then popularized a method of boiling the sap over a fire. Since importing sugar produced abroad on sugar plantations by slaves was labor-intensive and cost-prohibitive, maple sugar and maple syrup was a staple for communities in the Northeast.
In the 1700’s the process changed from slashing the trees to drilling holes, and then wooden buckets were traded for metal buckets. The first evaporator was developed in Vermont in the 1800s. The use of tubing was developed in 1916, and the first reverse osmosis process was created in the 1970s. Today, New York State is the second-largest producer of maple syrup in the United States, producing 820,000 gallons of syrup per year. You can see a full history and timeline of Maple in the Northeast here.
How to Enjoy It
I don’t think I need to tell you how to enjoy maple syrup. But if I do, I am happy to do it. It can be drizzled on almost anything. You can substitute regular or brown sugar with maple syrup in most uses, but you will have to adjust for the extra moisture in syrup. This equation above from our neighbors in Vermont may be helpful. Maple syrup is higher in antioxidants and some minerals such as calcium, iron, and potassium than regular sugar or honey.
Recipes to Try
Maple Peanuts by Elizabeth Folwell on Adirondack Life Magazine
Maple Thyme Marinated Hanger Steak by the New York State Maple Association
The “Algonquin” Maple Brandy Cocktail by Murray’s Fools Distilling
Where to Buy It
Find a list of maple producers here:
See where you can buy local maple syrup here: https://adirondackharvest.com/browse/?filter_products_c1025=Maple%20syrup