Among the Algonquin, maple syrup, known as sinzibuckwud, served as a prototype for modern-day energy drinks.
Among the Algonquin, maple syrup, known as sinzibuckwud, served as a prototype for modern-day energy drinks.
Acer saccharum (sugar maple)
Maple syrup is the sap of the sugar maple tree native to the hardwood forests of northeastern Canada, and the north and central United States. In the U.S, the sugar maple is primarily found in New England and Minnesota, as well as along the northeastern seaboard. However, sugar maples can grow as far south as Texas.
The sugar maple is a deciduous tree that grows up to 115 feet tall and can live up to 400 years. The tree favors cooler climates, growing most robust in regions with mild summers, such as southern Canada and New England. It grows well in most soil types, and is extremely shade tolerant. However, it does not fare well in compact soil and is vulnerable to the effects of air pollution. In autumn, its leaves turn from green to brilliant shades of orange and red.
A mature tree (aged 40 to 50 years) is required to produce maple syrup.
Sugar maple trees are propagated by seed and sometimes by rootstock. Homeowners who choose to grow sugar maple trees often purchase young seedlings.
Sugar maples are not recommended for landscaping and should not be planted near gardens because their nutrient and moisture-greedy surface roots make it difficult to grow anything else near the tree.
Maple syrup is made by concentrating the sap of certain varieties of the maple tree, including the sugar maple, the black maple, and the red maple. People who tap the sap from maple trees to produce maple syrup are called “sugar makers.” The name hails from an earlier era, when maple sap was used to make sugar, rather than syrup.
Maple trees are tapped by boring holes into the tree and collecting the sap that drains from the wood. To collect the sap, the sugar maker hangs a bucket beneath the hole to catch the sap as it exudes. Tapping season occurs once warm spring temperatures have caused maple trees to convert winter-stored starch into sugar.
A sugar maple must be at least 40 years old and approximately 10 to 12 inches in diameter before it may be tapped for sap. Older, larger trees can be tapped in multiple places, but younger trees can only withstand one tapping. Tapholes are generally placed at waist-level, away from previously tapped holes. Each taphole will yield approximately ten gallons of sap. Approximately 40 gallons of sap are required to produce one gallon of maple syrup.
The sap drained from sugar maples is mostly clear water that contains approximately 2% sugar and 98% water. After the trees are tapped, the sap is transferred to storage tanks at a sugar house. The stored sap is sometimes put through a reverse osmosis machine to remove some of the water before the heating process.
In the heating process, sap is boiled to evaporate much of the water, leaving a concentrated maple syrup. Stainless steel pans are placed on a firebox above a heat source created by a fire or oil. As the water evaporates from the sap, the sugar begins to caramelize into a golden syrup. This process may take as little as two hours, or as long as two days, depending on the size of the evaporator and the number of trees tapped.
When a thermometer placed in the syrup pan reaches 219 degrees Fahrenheit, it is ready to remove from the heat. Dipping a metal scoop into the boiling water is another good way to tell if the syrup is ready. If the drops along the bottom edge of the scoop begin to form sheets, the syrup is ready. After the evaporation process, the syrup that remains is approximately 33% water and 67% sugar.
During the last stage of the process, maple syrup undergoes filtering and is adjusted for flavor and density.
The history of maple syrup is a specifically North American tale. Although no definitive origin date is known, both archaeological evidence and stories passed down by oral tradition indicate that Native Americans were producing maple syrup well before the arrival of European settlers.
Many legends exist regarding the origins of maple syrup. One is that the sap was used in place of water to cook venison for a tribal chief. A lively version of this story tells that the chief of an Algonquin tribe made the initial discovery of the sugary sap when he threw his tomahawk at a maple tree. Curious, he drained the sap into a vessel, and later, in an effort not to be wasteful, his wife used it instead of water to cook venison for dinner - creating, presumably, a very sweet and savory new dish.
Among the Algonquin, maple syrup, known as sinzibuckwud, served as a prototype for modern-day energy drinks. They made it by draining the sap from the trees, collecting it in birch bark buckets, and heating it into a thick liquid by dropping hot stones into the buckets. Another northeastern tribe, the Iroquois, celebrated the “Sugar Moon” as a religious festival every spring when maple trees were tapped.
Native Americans introduced European settlers to maple syrup. Some stories say that it was served as part of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock in 1621. By the early 1700s, North American colonists were primarily using maple trees to produce maple sugar, a northern alternative to refined sugar made from sugar cane, produced primarily in the Caribbean (West Indies) and the south. Maple sugar was particularly popular among the Quakers and abolitionists, who sought it as an alternative to “slave-produced” sugar from the south.
The maple syrup industry was born during the Civil War, with the invention of tin cans, flat sheet metal evaporator pans, and metal spouts. Since the patent of the first sap evaporator in 1858, maple syrup production had remained largely unchanged until the 1970s. The energy crisis in North America forced maple syrup producers to seek more energy-efficient production alternatives, so plastic tubing systems were implemented, and vacuum pumps were added to the tubing systems as well as preheaters to recycle the heat produced by steam. Reverse osmosis machines were used to remove a portion of the water from the sap before boiling, increasing processing efficiency.
Innovations in maple syrup production are continuing to this day. As recently as 2009, scientists at the University of Vermont (the state responsible for the majority of maple syrup production in the United States) unveiled a new tap that prevents backflow of sap into the tree, reducing the risk of bacterial contamination.
Maple syrup is almost exclusively produced in Canada and the United States. Canada leads in the commercial maple syrup industry, producing over 70% of the world’s maple syrup annually.
The State of Vermont distinguishes four maple syrup grades.
From light to dark they are: Fancy, Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber, and Grade B.
The darker the syrup, the stronger the flavor.
It is important to understand these designations have nothing to do with quality - only the color of the syrup.
All maple syrup is produced by exactly the same process.
Maple syrup is most commonly associated as a topping for breakfast foods, such as pancakes, waffles, French Toast and oatmeal. It is also used for baking, often as a sugar substitute.
Maple syrup is great in salad dressings, marinades and glazes for meats and vegetables. It even makes an appearance in cocktail recipes.
Maple syrup can also be used for health and beauty purposes, such as a facial moisturizer.
Most maple syrup is composed of approximately 67%, or ⅔, pure sugar by weight, meaning that the sticky-sweet treat is essentially liquid sugar. However, despite its high sugar content, it boasts some surprising health benefits. While it certainly should not be considered a dietary staple, there are a few reasons it’s okay to indulge in an occasional stack of maple syrup-soaked pancakes:
Maple syrup contains polyphenols, which are antioxidants that are beneficial in reducing the risk for inflammatory disease, including Alzheimer’s, osteoarthritis, and some forms of cancer. It has the same beneficial classes of polyphenolic compounds found in berries, flax seed, red wine and tea.
The free-radical fighting antioxidants found in maple syrup are also beneficial to skin health. Added to a mixture of warm milk and finely ground oats, maple syrup makes a terrific anti-aging facial moisturizer.
Maple syrup is also an excellent source of manganese, an essential mineral that helps the body produce energy, bolsters antioxidant defenses, and helps to regulate brain and nerve function.
Zinc, another mineral found in maple syrup, is a trace element necessary to supporting the body’s immune system, including T cells, a type of white blood cell that wards against infection. It may also play a role in heart health, reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases by protecting against damage from excess cholesterol. For men, zinc promotes a healthy prostate gland, reducing the risk of prostate cancer.
Taking zinc and manganese supplements at the first signs of a cold may help prevent the cold or shorten its duration.
Maple syrup provides over ⅓ the daily value of riboflavin (vitamin B2), that aids in the body’s metabolic processes.
Unlike white sugar, maple syrup is not processed. Therefore, it contains higher levels of beneficial minerals such as calcium, potassium, copper, sodium, zinc and magnesium. Furthermore, it makes it a good sweetener substitute for high fructose corn syrup as it is not genetically modified and still retains its nutritional benefits.
To make maple syrup at home, you’ll need a few things:
Mature sugar maple trees (at least 40 years of age)
Tapping supplies: A drill, bit and hammer.
A spout: Purchase one from a maple manufacturer, or make your own from food-grade plastic tubing.
A bucket to catch sap. A pail may be hung beneath the spout, or as an alternative, a one-gallon plastic milk jug can be attached to the spout to catch sap. Use galvanized trash cans or large pails to store freshly-tapped sap.
A fire source, such as an outdoor fire pit or wood stove and dry, fast-burning wood. Using an electric stove is not recommended because of space limitations and costs of energy usage.
A pan for boiling water and sap.
A syrup or candy thermometer.
A felt syrup filter or strainer. Purchase from an equipment dealer.
To make your own maple syrup:
Choose trees that are at least 10” in diameter for tapping.
Drill a 7/16” hole, 3 inches deep, at a convenient height on the tree. Do not tap over an old tap hole or within 4” of another tap hole.
Using a hammer, drive in the spout so that it is tight in the hole and cannot be easily removed by hand. Do not overdrive, at risk of splitting the tree.
Add a hook and hang a bucket from the hook, below the spout, to catch sap.
Sap is like milk and will sour in the sun. Store collected sap in a cold place and boil as soon as possible to make syrup.
Boil a pan of water over a very hot (wood fire) heat source. Add cold sap directly into the boiling water.
Do not allow contents of pan to get lower than 1”, or it may burn.
It will take a great deal of boiling to reduce the sap down to syrup, and also a lot of sap. It takes approximately 10 gallons of sap to make one quart of syrup.
Finished syrup will be approximately 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than boiling temperature at your elevation. Use a syrup or candy thermometer to gauge.
Pour boiled sap through a felt syrup filter or strainer, or pour syrup into a clean container and let it sit for 12 hours to allow sediment to settle to the bottom, so the cleaner syrup can be poured off.
Reheat finished syrup to 180 degrees (almost boiling) prior to storing.
Store finished syrup in a cool place. The freezer is the best option. Properly prepared syrup will not freeze.