What is “real” maple syrup? What makes good maple syrup weather? How are trees tapped? What are maple syrup health benefits? Discover nature’s liquid gold!
The Old Farmer’s Almanac headquarters in New Hampshire is surrounded by maple trees. Wherever you look, there are sap buckets on those trees—at the local school, in neighbors’ woods, and along the road.
And if you drive by a “sugarhouse” and see steam billowing, they’re boiling the sap to produce maple syrup—or, what I call “liquid gold.” There is NO comparison between real maple syrup and the corn syrup confection sold in grocery stores.
What is Good Maple Syrup Weather?
Sugar’s sweet, but sap is sappier;
Cold nights make the farmers happier!
–The Old Farmer’s Almanac, 1989
Maple trees are tapped when temperatures alternate between freezing and thawing. Nighttime temperatures must drop below freezing (in the 20s), and daytime temperatures must reach 40 to 50 degrees. Before winter, the maple trees store starch in their trunks and roots, which gets converted into sugar. As spring nears, the sap thaws and the sugar in the sap rises up the tree.
You need cold nights to make “sugarers” happy, so unseasonably warm winters isn’t good for the harvest. What happens when it’s not the right temperatures? Well, some seasons are good, some aren’t. Agriculture’s not for wimps! We weather the ups and downs.
How Do You Tap a Tree?
Do all trees produce sap? Yes, but it’s the sugar maple that has the highest content of sugar in the sap. Red maples can be tapped, too.
There are many ways to tap trees to allow the sap to run out freely. Here’s the most basic way:
- Drill 2 to 3 inches into the south side of the tree at a convenient height, making a hole ⅜- to ⅝-inch in diameter (larger holes for larger trees). The hole should slant upward slightly.
- Then drive a metal sap spigot (available at hardware stores) into the hole, stopping short of the full distance of the hole.
- Hang a bucket on the spigot to collect the sap. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup.
- The sap is clear and almost tasteless—and very low in sugar content. Boil the sap to evaporate the water, producing a liquid with the characteristic flavor and color of maple syrup and a sugar content of 60 percent.
Maple Syrup Health Benefits
Native Americans used maple syrup both as a food and as a medicine—and taught the age-old process of sugaring to the colonists.
Maple syrup contains fewer calories and a higher concentration of minerals than honey. It’s an excellent source of manganese and a good source of zinc, which sweetens your antioxidant defenses, your heart, and your immune system. It may even have special benefits for men’s reproductive health.
Which Color Syrup is Better?
Now, if you’ve never tasted “real” maple syrup, there’s no way to describe its fresh, complex flavor with its hints of caramel. It’s a natural wonder of the world! The “syrup” that I grew up with was filled with corn syrup sweetness and noticably artificial “maple” flavor. Whether you like it or not (and I did at the time), it has never met a tree.
The maple syrup industry calls quality maple syrup ‘Grade A” and there are different color classifications–from a light golden color to a very dark color. The color does not reflect quality; it reflects taste. Generally, the lighter the color, the more mild the taste. The darker the color, the more robust the taste. How to choose?
- If you’re not used to pure maple syrup, perhaps try the lighter golden or amber color first. It has a more delicate flavor, and tends to be more popular. It’s what I buy for friends.
- If you like a strong maple flavor, try the “very dark” color. This variation is also called “cooking syrup” and often used in maple syrup recipes (baked goods, BBQ sauce, etc) when you want the maple goodness to shine through.
My husband and I prefer the very dark color, even for pancakes and waffles. We find it richer, bolder, and just more substantial. Interestingly, as the darker syrup is thicker, you also don’t need to pour as much syrup (hence, consuming less sugar). The cooking syrup costs less, too.
Bottom-line: One “Grade A” color of syrup is not better than another. It’s personal preference! What type of maple syrup do you have on your breakfast table?