It’s easy to take maple syrup for granted—the sticky bottle shows up briefly for breakfast, then languishes in the refrigerator until it’s called upon for baking. But recently, my interest grew as I noticed it in more and more savory dishes on restaurant menus. After pretty extensive taste-testing (it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it), one thing stood out to me: These restaurant dishes all tasted really mapley.
I was curious why that was, so I embarked on a thorough and delicious study of maple syrup. I learned more about how it’s made, the meanings of various terms associated with it, and what all those chefs are doing to get that rich flavor: They’re using grade B maple syrup. I used to think grade A was the best, but now I know that, at least in this case, grades have nothing to do with quality.
Maple syrup is concentrated sap
As you probably learned in elementary school, maple syrup is sugary sap that has been boiled down and concentrated. It can be made anywhere sugar maples grow, without much technology or equipment (although commercial producers have both in spades). Between 75% and 80% of the world’s supply comes from Quebec; Vermont is a distant second, supplying 5% to 7%. A few other prolific but less well-known sugaring states are Wisconsin (remember Laura Ingalls making candy by pouring maple syrup on snow?), Maine, Massachusetts, Indiana, New York, and Pennsylvania.
All that’s needed are sugar maple trees and the right weather conditions. Maple sap is harvested when it’s flowing from the roots up the tree trunks at the end of winter. The temperature needs to be above 40°F during the day, but below freezing at night, typically late February to early April. Each tree yields about 10 gallons of clear, watery sap, and it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup.
Once the sap is collected, water is evaporated from it by boiling—commercial producers use more high-tech methods to speed the process—which also caramelizes the sugar, giving the syrup its color and a lot of its flavor. This boiled syrup, bottled with no additives, is labeled pure maple syrup. If any sweeteners or fillers are added, it has to be labeled as maple-flavored syrup, while bottles labeled as pancake syrup, table syrup, or just syrup don’t need to contain any real maple.
Grade is determined by color and density
Maple sap becomes syrup once it has reached a certain level of sugar concentration. Early-season sap tends to have a higher concentration of sugar to begin with, and the sap becomes more watery as the season progresses. This late-season watery sap has to be boiled longer to get to the right concentration of sugar, which also caramelizes the sugars further, making darker, thicker, bolder-flavored syrup—grade B. Other factors, like weather and terroir, play a role in flavor, but ultimately, the color of the syrup and the amount of light it allows through determine grade.
In the United States, maple syrup can be grade A light amber, grade A medium amber, grade A dark amber, or grade B. In Canada, you’ll find No. 1 extra light, light, and medium; No. 2 amber; and No. 3 dark. And just to complicate matters, states and provinces can set their own grading systems; in Vermont, for example, grade A light amber is called Vermont Fancy. The grades don’t reflect quality and have no impact on price. They just indicate the intensity of the flavor.
All of this information can make buying maple syrup a little confusing, but the thing to remember is that the darker a syrup is in color, the thicker it will be and the more intense its flavor. This is why grade B is the darling of restaurant kitchens.
Pair dark syrup with bold flavors
Chef Scott Megill of Talula’s Daily restaurant in Philadelphia uses syrup from nearby Lancaster County in a lot of his savory dishes. He reaches for grade B when roasting meat and chicken or when pairing sweet and spicy flavors. He does both in his maple-glazed chicken, which uses a pinch of red pepper flakes. He also blends maple and bacon—a classic combination, the perfect mixture of salty and sweet—over popcorn for a tempting snack.
Grade B goes with more than just meat, though. In baked goods, it immediately telegraphs the flavor of maple, where a lighter syrup might just taste sweet. “I don’t like to just use sugar,” Megill says. “I like to use something that has some flavor, too.”
This doesn’t mean you should abandon your grade A, though. Lighter syrups, Megill says, are good in braises, where they cook down to become more concentrated. And of course, they’re great on pancakes, wa es, and oatmeal, where the more delicate flavors of the food and the syrup are balanced, with neither one overpowering the other. All grades have their place. I still keep a bottle of grade A medium on hand for weekend breakfasts. But I also keep grade B in the fridge, and now my savory, maple-inflected dishes get top marks.
Other Tree Syrups to Try
Maple isn’t the only syrup made from trees. In other parts of the world, you’ll find these sweeteners.
Birch syrup: Common in Alaska and Scandinavia, this syrup looks and tastes similar to maple syrup, but it has distinct spicy and herbal notes all its own.
Mugolio: This syrup is extracted from the buds of miniature pine trees that grow in the Italian Alps. It has a honeylike flavor with a spicy, piney taste that pairs well with apples and pears.
Palm syrup: Often called palm honey, coconut treacle, or kithul treacle, this syrup is common in tropical countries around the world. It has a rich, molasseslike flavor that’s great in curries.