You know those days in early winter when the air is so rich it’s palpable and snow is just starting to cover the ground? There’s an earthy pungency, like rotting mushrooms, a sharp acidity in the wind.
Sometimes something else is added to the mix: a smell of wood, fire and sugar. I remember breathing it in deeply after high school hockey practice, when the combination of physical fatigue and teenage hunger was at its peak.
On those days, there was only one snack to tide me over: hot syrup, poured over freshly packed snow. It touched all the senses: hot and cold, bitter and sweet, the flavors of my environment adding a savory element. I didn’t think about it at the time, but it does help me understand maple syrup as an ingredient now. Adding maple-y sweetness isn’t about introducing maple flavor, per se , but it’s adding just enough depth to the background of a dish, like how the aroma of charcoal smoke permeates everything at a barbecue, even if you’re just eating salad.
Early colonists learned from Native Americans to tap maple trees to produce maple sugar. This was a more accessible alternative to cane sugar, which at the time was an expensive import. Modern production methods have brought more efficiency, but fundamentally it’s the same as it’s been for generations. Bright blue rubber tubing connects maple trees at their taps, creating a complex sap-carrying network through the forest.
These sap lines are a winter constant in the landscape where I grew up in upstate New York. As a child, it seemed to me that the entire forest was connected. I always wondered what the deer thought of this web of tubing—I imagined it would make maneuvering through the trees somewhat inconvenient. Whether the deer mind it or not, they seem to keep complaints to themselves, and each year toward the end of winter my neighbors gather for a sap boil. Our family’s trees are tapped by a commercial seller, but several others nearby do things the old-fashioned way—an individual sap bucket strapped on each tree. Several houses combine their harvest, and the day is spent slowly simmering the sap in a sugar house, using a wood-fired oven with wide trays to increase the surface area of the evaporating liquid. Maple syrup, and especially the sugaring off, was essential to my childhood, and the gallon I perennially keep in my fridge keeps my spirit connected to the earth.
It takes 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of usable syrup. All syrup is made in the same way, and reduced to about the same sugar content, but the variations in the sap itself—as the season moves along—yield different flavors. The grades refer to the time at which the sap is extracted and reduced. The difference between grade A or grade B isn’t that one is more or less refined, but that they were made at different times, and hence have a different color and intensity of maple flavor. As a general rule you might consider darker grade-B syrup as more suited to cooking, with lighter grade-A syrup better for pancakes, but I’ve never been much for these rules.
Maple syrup can be a tricky ingredient to use. Its relatively high water content makes it difficult to incorporate into sweets, and the flavor when baked tends be more muted than you’d expect. Savory options are typically limited to standbys like maple-glazed salmon or bacon.
To get you thinking about using maple syrup in savory foods I’ve selected a few areas where an element of sweetness is critical. Mexican mole (pronounced MO-lay) sauces are traditionally a balance between the flavors of dried chilies, nuts and chocolate. Here I offer a New England interpretation of a classic, using maple instead of cocoa. Japanese cuisine uses mirin, a sweetened rice wine, to balance the salinity of soy and miso. Using maple syrup in this context offers a unique approach to a simple sauce like teriyaki.
The first “recipe,” however, is hot syrup over snow. After a fresh fall of snow, gather a pile of it into a bucket. Heat syrup until it comes to a heavy boil. Spread the snow on a sheet tray and pack into a dense layer. With a ladle, drizzle the syrup over the snow, and as it cools roll it into a ball with a popsicle stick.
BEN RIGBY is a professional cook, freelance writer and anthropologist. Amateur gardening and banjos round out the days. Follow him on instagram at @rigbybenjamin