While the ground is still frozen in early spring, Canadian maple syrup production kicks into high gear. Working among thickets of sugar maples are busy syrup producers, monitoring spigots, or large taps, driven deep into the trees’ trunks. While other maples can be tapped, the sugar maple—Canada’s national tree—produces by far the sweetest sap. Encouraged by the warmth of the spring sun, these trees release clear, watery juice that slowly trickles from the spouts, dripping into a bucket or flowing through a modern system of interconnected pipes. Next it is boiled in a nearby sugar shack, evaporating the excess water until it yields thick, sweet maple syrup: Canada’s liquid gold.
Travel back in time 200 years, and the scene is similar. The basic process of converting maple sap to maple syrup hasn’t changed for centuries. Another constant: maple syrup’s delicious versatility. Here’s your guide to understanding, buying and cooking with this Canadian staple.
Maple syrup vs. Table syrup
It takes approximately 40 litres of sap to make just one litre of maple syrup. Because of the slow and work-intensive production process, maple syrup tends to cost more than its pantry cousin, table syrup. This equally sweet product is easier to produce, as it doesn’t rely on a long, cold winter followed by a spring thaw to get sap flowing. Instead, it can be made anywhere, at any time of year, usually with a combination of sweeteners and artificial maple flavour.
Grades of maple syrup
Have you found yourself reaching for maple syrup at the grocery store, only to discover there are different kinds? You’re not alone.
What used to be labelled as Canada No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 has been changed to Canada Grade A with a much simpler classification by colour and flavour, as follows.
- Golden, Delicate Taste: The first harvest of the season, it has a subtle maple flavour. Try it over fresh fruit.
- Amber, Rich Taste: Your classic pancake topper also makes a pleasing addition to grilled salmon.
- Dark, Robust Taste: This darker syrup is good for those who like strong maple flavour at breakfast time. It’s also delicious over ice cream.
- Very Dark, Strong Taste: The last harvest of the season, this syrup is thick and gooey with intense maple flavour. It can even be substituted for molasses in recipes at a one-to-one ratio.
Cooking with maple syrup
Although maple syrup is a beloved breakfast treat, its signature flavour adds depth to any dish, sweet or savoury, at any time of day. A little goes a long way—try it with fruits, vegetables, meat or dairy, or as a sweet swap for the sugar and honey in drinks and desserts. Here are some of our favourite ideas.
- Enhance fruit’s natural sugars by brushing a small amount of maple syrup on pears, plums and peaches before grilling.
- Turn your favourite dairy products into flavourful sweets. Mix maple syrup with melted butter for a variation on caramel corn, or fold it into whipped cream to make a decadent pancake topper. Drizzle maple syrup on yogourt at breakfast, or blend it with cream cheese for a delicious icing.
- In cocktails, maple syrup goes especially well with brown liquors, such as whisky and bourbon.
- Brush maple syrup onto chicken, pork and seafood before baking or grilling for a sweet glaze.
- Mix maple syrup with savoury pastes such as miso or mustard to create a quick and easy dipping sauce.
- Whisk maple syrup with oil and vinegar for a simple vinaigrette with deep and delicious flavour.