It’s fall, so you can take your pumpkin spice and enjoy it in your deodorant, candles, lattés and, well, seemingly everything. Me? When I think of fall flavors, I think about maple syrup.
It is actually a bit odd when you consider that spring is the season when producers collect and cook down the sap from the maple trees. Still, I’m going to stick with my convictions, because maple syrup to me evokes flannel and colorful foliage, all of which are the essence of fall.
And no, it’s not just sweet.
“Maple syrup is a lot more complex than sugar,” says Laura Sorkin, who owns Vermont-based Runamok Maple with her husband, Eric. “There’s a lot more nuance than what you would get with granulated sugar.”
The flavor can vary depending on the time of year, but Sorkin says toffee, caramel, honey and apple are among the notes she can pick out. There’s also a balance of sweetness and acidity.
We’ve all poured maple syrup over our pancakes and waffles. Maybe even a little too much — that stuff is $$$! Here’s what you need to know about how to better understand, appreciate and use that liquid gold.
The grades. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated its maple grades to come into line with standards already adopted by several states and Canada. One of the goals with the new grades was to give consumers better descriptors of flavor and color, as well as allow some of the very dark syrup previously classified as B grade to be folded into the A grade, providing easier access for home cooks. Sorkin says it’s worth keeping in mind that the strength of flavor does not always occur in a smooth progression along with color, as you can get a lighter-colored syrup with an intense taste and a darker that’s milder.
Still, here is the rundown of how the government describes the grades aimed at individual buyers (there is a processing grade that can be used by manufacturers making other products), ordered from least to most intense, as well as early to late season:
• Grade A, golden color/delicate flavor: “Mild maple taste,” according to the USDA. You might know this from its previous grade, Fancy. The Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association suggests serving this grade with the expected breakfast fare or rich dairy, such as ice cream or yogurt.
• Grade A, amber color/rich flavor: “A full-bodied maple taste of medium intensity,” the USDA says. If you choose only one grade, Sorkin says, it should be this one. It’s great on waffles and pancakes, but the Vermont association also recommends it for salad dressings, cocktails and barbecue sauce.
• Grade A, dark color/robust flavor: The USDA is less helpful on the last two grades, explaining that this grade has a stronger taste than the lighter colors. Our friends from Vermont like to take advantage of its hearty flavor by pouring it over baked fruit and vegetables and using it as a glaze for meat and vegetables. It can also shine in baking.
• Grade A, very dark/strong flavor: You guessed it — “a maple taste that is stronger than robust.” OK then! What say you, Vermont? “When you need a strong maple flavor in a bread or cookie, ice cream, or barbecue sauce, this is the grade of choice.”
Storage. Keep unopened maple syrup in a cool, dry spot, out of direct light. The Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association recommends storing opened maple syrup in the refrigerator. Or to keep it in very good shape, you can freeze it, going through as many freezing and thawing cycles as you want, as long as you let it thaw completely and stir in any condensation that forms on the top of the syrup.
Substitutions. “Maple syrup is about as sweet as sugar, so you can replace it using an equal amount of syrup,” according to the experts at King Arthur Flour. “Decrease the liquid by 3 to 4 tablespoons per 1 cup substitution.” If you’re adding maple syrup to a recipe that doesn’t call for liquid, you need to increase the flour by 1 tablespoon for every ¼ cup maple syrup used. King Arthur Flour emphasizes using room-temperature maple syrup, because if it’s cold, it can cause other ingredients, including butter, to clump. If you use a darker grade, expect a “delightfully caramelly” flavor.
Flavors. If you’re interested in creating your own infusions, especially with whole spices, Sorkin suggests gently heating the syrup and letting the ingredients steep for a few hours. Taste every so often to see whether you’ve achieved the right level of flavor. Keep in mind that it’s better to be conservative than add too much or steep too long. Sorkin’s eclectic infused syrups include such flavors as hibiscus, makrut lime-leaf, smoked chile pepper and ginger.
Uses. “I would just love it if people would start thinking beyond pancakes,” Sorkin says. She notes that honey has really come into its own as an ingredient to be appreciated and used in a variety of ways and hopes the time will come soon for maple syrup. Maple syrup on a cheese board? Go for it! In Vermont, people have been putting maple syrup in their coffee for a long time, and Sorkin says it works in tea, too, particularly a black variety (try it in chai). She also is a proponent of maple syrup in cocktails.
Sorkin says maple syrup can be lost in flour-heavy baked goods, so she prefers to save it for situations when it can really shine, such as in frostings (buttercream or cream cheese), glazes and a simple syrup applied to a cake.
It can be used in a wide variety of savory applications, too, adding just the right balance when played against other flavors. Sorkin, who trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York (now the International Culinary Center), likes to add a drizzle on top of a sweet potato and tahini dip. Always worth considering: maple butter.