Tap Into Everything You Need to Know About Maple Syrup

Here’s how it’s made, what those grades mean, and how to cook with it. 

A drop of fresh sap falls from a tap in a maple tree
Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Maple syrup is always a pantry staple, but its presence is especially welcome during the cold weather season, when pancakes are a weekend breakfast must and root vegetables welcome a drizzle of this sweet gold. Pour it over a hot stack or use it to sweeten the marinade for pork or turkey. There are so many ways to have fun with it in the kitchen, but it helps to understand how syrup is made and what all those grades mean. Here's what you need to know about the magic of maple syrup.

Grades of Maple Syrup

Once upon a time, maple syrup was categorized by three grades — fancy, A, and B. This grading system led to much confusion, as most people assumed "fancy" was the best and "B" was the lowest quality. In 2012, the International Maple Syrup Institute decided to update its grading system to more accurately reflect what consumers were getting inside the bottle. Today, all maple syrup is labeled as "grade A" and includes two additional qualifiers on the label — color and flavor. The four tiers of maple syrup are: golden color, delicate flavor; amber color, rich flavor; dark color, robust flavor; and very dark, strong flavor. "Generally speaking, you get the lighter stuff at the beginning of the year and the darker syrup later in the season," says Laura Sorkin, co-founder of Runamok Maple Syrup. "You're really only going to get the dark syrup at the end of the season, however, you can get light syrup all season."

Are Maple Syrup and Pancake Syrup the Same?

Maple syrup and pancake syrup are two totally different products; the latter is corn syrup combined with artificial maple flavoring. "​​Everyone presumes that's what maple syrup is, but it's definitely not. [Pancake syrup] is thicker and has a lot more corn syrup in it," says Sorkin. By comparison, pure maple syrup is thinner and has a much more complex flavor with notes of caramel, brown sugar, butterscotch, and vanilla. Not to mention, it's one of the only remaining wild-crafted products people make. "It's not like most agriculture that's cultivated and conveniently on the fields," Sorkin notes. "You have to walk out into a wild forest and tap trees. It's uniquely North American and the taste is just out of this world. There's nothing else like it."

How Maple Syrup Is Made

Most maple syrup producers tap trees between January and April; larger operations such as Runamok start as early as possible to ensure that all of their trees are fully tapped by the time the sap starts running. So how do you tap trees for maple syrup? "You literally walk through the forest, drill a hole into each tree, and then hammer a tap in," Sorkin explains. Sap runs as soon as the temperature hits above freezing during the day and below freezing at night; the fluctuating temperature creates pressure that causes the sap to rise and flow from the trees.

When sap comes out of the trees, it contains only between one and three percent sugar content, plus lots of minerals and water. Once the sap is fully harvested, it is boiled down to remove most of the water content, resulting in a maple syrup that is at least 66 percent sugar. "Vermont has a slightly higher standard for maple syrup. It must contain 66.6 percent sugar content, whereas most other regions require it to be 66 percent sugar content. This is why we think ours tastes better," adds Sorkin.

Where Does Maple Syrup Come From?

It probably comes as no surprise that Canada is the largest producer of maple syrup; Quebec produces between 75 and 80 percent of the world's supply of syrup. Within the United States, Vermont is the number one supplier of maple syrup, though New York State is catching up. "Excuse the pun, but if they tap into all of their maple groves, they would surpass Vermont pretty quickly," says Sorkin. However, maple syrup isn't produced exclusively in New England and Canada; Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Virginia are also large producers of the sticky staple. "There's plenty of maple syrup produced as far west as the Continental Divide — you just need the right growing conditions," she adds.

How to Store Maple Syrup

Take note of how maple syrup is sold at the supermarket: on a shelf in an aisle located in the middle of the store. The same goes for storing maple syrup at home; unopened maple syrup can be kept in your pantry at room temperature for up to three years. Once you open a jug, though, keep it in the refrigerator (similarly, it's good for about three years). "Sugar is its own preservative, but there are certain types of mold that can creep in," says Sorkin. "If you leave opened maple syrup out on the counter for a few weeks, it'll form mold." While it's not a harmful mold, it's probably not something you want to consume. Instead of throwing the bottle out altogether, you can bring the syrup to a boil in a large pot (boiling syrup can overflow easily), and the heat will naturally kill any unwanted bacteria.

Sweet and Savory Maple Syrup Recipes to Try

For starters, what's the best kind of maple syrup to cook and bake with, anyway? "In order to have the maple flavor come through, you need dark colored syrup," says Sorkin. "I think the lighter flavored stuff is better in cocktails and on fresh fruit where you just want a little maple flavor. For pancakes, waffles, and French toast, Grade A amber color, rich flavor is probably the best."

If you want to start with breakfast and brunch, these Pecan-Maple Sticky Rolls are a must, as are Maple-Meringue Donuts, the crowd-friendly Overnight French Toast with Cranberries and Pecans, and this autumnally apt Pumpkin-Banana Bread French Toast.

Beyond drizzling maple syrup over these classic recipes, there are so many sweet and savory recipes that feature it. Try these Air Fryer Pork Chops With Maple-Soy Glaze, which are a cozy main for weeknight meals. The glaze is first brushed on the chops before they're cooked, helping them to achieve a charred crust, and then again right before serving for a little extra flavor. Looking for a sweet end to your meal? Enjoy a slice of Brandy Pecan Pie, which uses dark maple syrup, Peach-Maple Ice Cream, or Maple-Apple Upside-Down Cake. For cold weather cocktails, it doesn't get better than this Maple-Bourbon Smash. Can't get enough maple syrup? Cook your way through more of our favorite sweet and savory recipes featuring maple syrup.

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