Are you using real maple syrup or an impostor? Read on to find out and to learn more about Canada's favourite ingredient.
It’s no coincidence that the Canadian flag has a maple leaf on it or that we use the expression “As Canadian as maple syrup.” Over the years, this sweet syrup has become a quintessential part of our national identity. But before you get the griddle going, check out some of our favourite facts on this beloved ingredient.
Maple sap is tapped in the early spring, making the first real harvest of the year, long before wild leeks, fiddleheads or rhubarb begin to grow. To celebrate, maple-centric festivals take place all over the country to honour this treasured ingredient.
Terry Hoover, an Ontario maple producer and owner of Hoover’s Maple Syrup, is a huge proponent of the events hosted each spring: “There are so many festivals, and each one has something that makes it really special,” he says. “It’s an iconic experience, like eating peameal bacon. You can’t say you’re truly Canadian until you’ve gone to a maple sugar bush!”
Tapping into our history
Long before European settlers came along, maple sap was harvested and enjoyed by Indigenous Canadian populations, who tapped trees by cutting v-shaped patterns (or inserting thin wooden tubes) into the bark. They created syrup in a variety of ways: using freezing temperatures to separate the water from the sap or boiling the sap down in clay kettles over the fire. Eventually, European settlers learned these techniques from the Indigenous peoples, and maple syrup production began in their communities between 1700-1800 in Canada.
Over time, syrup producers improved upon the initial harvesting and boiling methods for larger-scale efficiency. These days, big syrup producers often use vacuum-powered plastic lines, stainless steel holding tanks and reverse-osmosis filtration in the syrup-making process—a far cry from the tin bucket methods of yore, but yielding results every bit as delicious.
From sap to syrup: maple harvesting
The maple industry thrives in Canada primarily because our climate in early spring is perfect for tree-tapping. Harvesting usually takes place when the temperatures at night dip below freezing and rise to a few degrees above zero several days in a row. These fluctuating temperatures create pressure within the maple trees, causing the sap to flow downward during the day, so that a tree, tapped near its base, will release its sap.
Much of the maple sap that gets harvested is just water; its sugar content is only about 2%. That harvested sap gets collected and brought to a processing area, where it’s boiled down until it reaches about 66%-67% sugar content, resulting in the maple syrup we know and love.
Syrup heists, maple impostors and other sticky facts
- It takes almost 40 litres of raw maple sap to make a single litre of maple syrup.
- Canada produces almost 80% of the maple products supplied worldwide, and our maple exports are valued at a whopping $381 million.
- 2017 was a record-breaking year for maple syrup in Canada, with over 12.5 million gallons of maple produced, and the total value of maple products rising to $493.7 million.
- Although there are strong maple production industries in Ontario, BC, and some of the Eastern provinces, the overwhelming majority of our maple—90% of it, at the moment—comes from Quebec.
- Quebec also houses the Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve, a collection of warehouses that have stockpiled over 100 million pounds of maple syrup. The reserve earned a certain level of international notoriety due to the maple syrup heist of 2012, during which 6 million pounds of syrup were stealthily syphoned off and smuggled away.
- Canadian Grade A maple syrup has four potential classifications, each associated with a particular colour and shade. Syrup can be classified as one of the following: "golden, delicate taste," "amber, rich taste," "dark, robust taste," or "very dark, strong taste."
- Table syrup (sometimes called pancake syrup or breakfast syrup) is easily confused with maple syrup at the grocery store and has a much cheaper price tag, but don’t be fooled. This product is made from flavoured high-fructose corn syrup and is dramatically milder in flavour.
More than a topping: cooking with maple
There’s no doubt that maple syrup poured over waffles or pancakes is one of the weekend’s great pleasures. However, maple is also terrific as an ingredient and can be used in sweet or savoury dishes to great effect. It’s the signature ingredient in our butter tarts but also works well as a marinade for buttermilk grilled chicken, toffee sauce for shortcakes or glaze for cedar plank grilled salmon.
If you love maple flavour, it’s easy to substitute maple syrup for more traditional sweeteners in your favourite recipes. Swap it in for other liquid sweeteners (such as honey, molasses, corn syrup or agave) at a 1:1 volume ratio. To replace granulated or brown sugar in a recipe, for every 1 cup of sugar, substitute 2/3 cup of maple syrup, reduce the quantity of liquid ingredients in the recipe (usually water, milk, or juice) by about 1/4 cup, and lower the baking temperature by 25°F.
You don’t have to stick to just maple syrup, either. Maple sugar (extra-concentrated maple sap that’s been dried out and crumbled) is terrific as a brown sugar substitute in cakes, like in our Canadian Maple Raspberry Cake. Maple cream (concentrated maple syrup that gets whipped as it crystallizes to form a light, spreadable sauce) is a wonderful topping for crepes. Maple water (pure maple tree sap, before it’s boiled down to make syrup) is sold on its own as a local alternative to drinks like coconut water and can be excellent in cocktails.