Maple and Pancake Syrup
The syrup area of the supermarket is full of evocative names. You can breakfast with motherly Mrs. Butterworth or manly Hungry Jack or escape into nature with Maple Grove Farms, Spring Tree, or Log Cabin. Sold side by side, genuine maple syrup and so-called pancake syrup (made with high-fructose corn syrup) can range from more than $1 per ounce for the real deal to a mere 14 cents per ounce for an imitation. But, price and product names aside, which tastes best? To find out, we pitted four top-selling national brands of maple syrup against five popular pancake syrups, hoping to find the best one for pouring over pancakes or using in recipes. For good measure, we also threw in the winning mail-order maple syrup from a previous tasting.
Americans love syrup, spending more than $450 million a year on it in supermarkets alone, with pancake syrup vastly outselling real maple syrup. While the two types look alike, and both taste sweet, the similarity ends there. Maple syrup is simply tree sap that has been boiled to reduce its water content and concentrate its sugar. As the sap boils down, it caramelizes and develops a characteristic maple flavor and golden brown color. Pancake syrup, on the other hand, is a manufactured mix of high-fructose corn syrup and other ingredients engineered to taste like maple.
These maple wannabes have their work cut out for them, as it’s not easy to replicate the taste of genuine maple syrup. Its flavors vary enormously—some syrups are rich and complex, with hints of honey, wood, coffee, smoke, caramel, chocolate, and even rum—others are light, bright, and remarkably clean-tasting for something so sweet. Indeed, scientists have identified nearly 300 flavor compounds in maple syrup (though not in every one); these are produced as the various amino acids, phenolic compounds, minerals, salts, and sugars contained in sap interact during boiling.
Still Tapped by Hand
Maple syrup costs much more than pancake syrup for some very good reasons: Its production is labor-intensive, with a short season and limited supply. Sap only runs for about a month at the end of winter, when freezing nights and warmer days turn starch stored in the tree roots into sugar and start it circulating through the tree to fuel spring growth. Workers set taps by hand and move them each year so that the trees can heal. We’ve all seen pictures of buckets on trees and horse-drawn wagons carrying sap to the sugarhouse; farmers today use miles of plastic tubing, which is laid by hand throughout the woods to convey sap. The maple trees grow in a limited area: Quebec produces about 79 percent of the world’s maple syrup, followed by Vermont, with the remainder from other states.
It takes a lot of maple sap to make syrup: Forty gallons boil down to around 1 gallon of syrup. When it reaches the right density, the syrup is filtered and poured hot into containers. To develop a consistent product year after year, large manufacturers start with a specific understanding of their preferred flavor profile, then carefully blend syrup in batches before repasteurizing and bottling it.
The U.S. government enforces standards for maple syrup, requiring a minimum of 66 percent density (a measure of sugar content) and grading the syrup by color. The lightest-colored, most delicate-flavored syrup, tapped at the beginning of the season when the sap first begins flowing, is usually the most expensive—more than $1 per ounce. As the season progresses and the weather warms, the syrup becomes darker and more intensely flavored. Certain influences, such as insect infestations in trees or tapping sap too late in the season, when buds are forming, can produce off-flavors.
Although maple syrup has been poured since Native Americans first discovered the sweetness of maple sap, pancake syrup is a modern invention. The first brand, Log Cabin, concocted in 1887 as a cheaper alternative, originally contained 45 percent maple syrup supplemented by inexpensive corn syrup. As more brands came along, the real maple content shrank; Aunt Jemima, for instance, made its debut in 1966 with just 15 percent maple syrup. By the 1970s, most brands—claiming customers didn’t mind—had eliminated maple syrup from their products, replacing it with a slew of artificial flavorings and additives.
Cloying and Candylike
As soon as we tabulated the results of our tastings, it became clear that the pancake syrups would not do: Whether tasted on waffles or baked in Maple-Pecan Pie, they got the thumbs-down. Not only did most of these products not taste like maple, tasters complained of overpowering butterscotch, vanilla, or caramel notes and an artificial butter flavor that gave the pancake syrups a cloying, “candylike” taste. Most also had an “unnaturally” thick, viscous texture that tasters disliked.
As for the maple syrups, in a tasting a decade ago, we preferred dark syrups with intense maple flavor to the delicate flavor of pricey Grade A Light Amber syrup. Over the years, we have confirmed this preference and do not recommend paying top dollar for the highest-grade syrup. In this tasting, four of the five syrups we sampled were Grade A Dark Amber, meaning each should have had a similar, moderately deep flavor—but some lost points for having less maple flavor than others. Overly intense flavor didn’t win the day, either: Our former winner, a dark Grade B syrup, ranked second overall (though it won the pie tasting—Grade B is often called “cooking syrup” for good reason).
Overwhelming sweetness was also a turnoff, and lab tests confirmed that the lowest-ranked maple syrups had the highest sugar levels. Tasters preferred a good balance of sweetness and maple flavor. Our least favorite syrup had a high level of sugar and weak maple flavor, while our winner embodied a balance of the two.
Any number of environmental factors, including changes in soil, weather, and growing conditions, can account for variations in maple flavor. But why are some maple syrups sweeter than others, when all must fall within a few percentage points of federal standards for sugar density? Density reflects the percentage of all dissolved solids in the syrup; these are mainly sugars, but also include trace amounts of minerals. Experts told us that minute differences in manufacturing—such as boiling the syrup too long, not long enough, or at too high a temperature—can affect the amount of sugar in the final product. The sugar content only needed to vary by a percentage point or two for our tasters to notice the difference.
Low Price, Top Taste
In the end, tasters agreed that one real maple syrup stood out. This syrup—one of the lowest-priced, at 62 cents per ounce—had everything we sought: “potent, clean, intense” maple flavor, moderate sweetness, a consistency that was neither too thick nor too thin, and no off-flavors. We’ll be happy to pour it over our next batch of pancakes and cook with it, too.