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A Less Processed Life: Maple Syrup and Cold Weather's Silver Lining

Though often referred to as mud season, the transition from winter to spring also hearkens the arrival of sugaring season in the northwoods. Sugar maples trees—along with a variety of other tree species—are tapped when daytime temperatures rise above freezing and nighttime temperatures fall below freezing. During a good spring the sap may run for as much as a month, or until the daily freeze/thaw cycle ends, or buds burst and leaves begin to develop on the trees.

Long before the introduction of low-cost sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup was widely used in the United States. In 1860, more than six and a half million gallons of the sweet stuff were produced. Given the U.S. population at the time, this averages to a consumption rate of twenty-seven ounces of syrup per person per year. Today, the amount of pure maple syrup each American consumes per year is slightly less than 3 ounces. However, as interest in whole foods and natural ingredients increases, so too is the popularity of maple syrup. In fact, maple syrup production is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States, with 2013 being a banner year as more syrup was produced in the U.S. than any other year since 1945.

The classic method to collect sap involves drilling a hole into the tree, hammering a metal spout into it, and hanging a pail directly underneath to collect the sap. Sap flows quickest after sunrise, as the temperature increases. In general, over half of the sap flow occurs by noon, and decreases steadily as temperatures fall as evening approaches.

Typically, 40 gallons of sap are needed to produce one gallon of finished syrup.  This year, here in Wisconsin, syrup makers are reporting a sixty-to-one ratio. After the sap is collected, the extra water in the sap must be evaporated off to produce a syrup with about a 67 percent sugar content. As the water evaporates, syrup makers use a hydrometer to measure the syrup’s specific gravity. Legally, the boiled sap must contain 66.7 percent sugar content to be considered maple syrup.

Until quite recently, the maple syrup made in the U.S. was classified into five different grades depending on the color of the syrup. Grade A syrups are lighter in color and thinner than Grade B syrups, which are darker and thicker. However, naming conventions were not standardized among syrup-producing states. For example, a syrup classified as “Grade B” in New Hampshire might be classified as “Grade A Extra Dark Amber” in Maine. A few months ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a new maple syrup grading system to match guidelines set by the International Maple Syrup Institute to help prevent confusion among consumers. The new classification system gets rid of Grade B altogether and adds tasting notes into each name. The four new grades range from “Grade A Golden and Delicate Taste” to “Grade A Very Dark and Strong Taste.”

The complex flavors of maple syrup, which vary from one producer to the next, may have hints of caramel, vanilla, smokiness, or even floral or fruity notes. Though not a low-calorie food, compared to other sweeteners, maple syrup is a good source of manganese and riboflavin, a good source of zinc, and also contains magnesium, calcium, and potassium.

When it comes to using maple syrup, your options go way beyond pouring it liberally over top your pancakes, waffles, or French toast. Maple syrup can also be used as a sweetener in coffee, tea, or your morning bowl of oatmeal. It also works well as a glaze for pork, chicken, or fish. When using maple syrup as a replacement for sugar in baking recipes, the general rule of thumb is that, for every cup of white sugar in a recipe, you can substitute three-fourths cup maple syrup, and reduce the liquid ingredients by about three tablespoons.

One of my favorite ways to use maple syrup is as a flavor component in a marinade or vinaigrette. One particularly versatile recipe that I like to use is a maple-Dijon vinaigrette that calls for maple syrup, Dijon mustard, sherry vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper. The maple syrup adds a complex smoky sweetness to the dressing that balances the robust bite of the mustard and vinegar.

I tend to make my salad dressings in a small mason jar with a lid, as a vigorous shake is all you need to combine the ingredients together. This vinaigrette works well as a salad dressing and can also be used as a marinade or, if reduced slightly on the stovetop, as a sauce for meats such as roasted salmon.

So, while we may all want the warm temperatures of spring to arrive in one fell swoop, keep in mind that the longer below-freezing temperatures linger at night, the more maple syrup that can be produced. And that’s some sweet solace, indeed.

Susan Bronson grew up in southwestern Ohio. After stints in Chicago, Wyoming, and Philadelphia, she moved to the Northwoods with her husband in 2012. She has worked as a science editor for a publishing company since 2005 and has written the food blog A Less Processed Life since 2010. Aside from cooking and eating (which go hand in hand with food blogging), she enjoys spending time in the great outdoors, reading, practicing yoga, and watching way more reality TV than she would like to admit.
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