Before you pour all that maple syrup on your pancakes, here’s what you should know about it

Becky Krystal

WASHINGTON (The Washington Post) – It’s fall, so you can take your pumpkin spice and … enjoy it in your deodorant, candles, lattes and, well, seemingly everything.

Me? When I think of fall flavours, 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 New England and flannel and colourful 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,” said 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 flavour can vary depending on the time of year, but Sorkin said 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.

Maple syrup comes in different grades. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

The grades. In 2015, the United States (US) 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 flavour and colour, 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 said it’s worth keeping in mind that the strength of flavour does not always occur in a smooth progression along with colour, as you can get a lighter-coloured 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 colour/delicate flavour: “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 colour/rich flavour: “A full-bodied maple taste of medium intensity,” the USDA said. If you choose only one grade, Sorkin said, it should be this one. It’s great on waffles and pancakes, but the Vermont association also recommends it for salad dressings, drinks and barbecue sauce.

– Grade A, dark colour/robust flavour: The USDA is less helpful on the last two grades, explaining that this grade has a stronger taste than the lighter colours. You don’t say. Anyway, our friends from Vermont like to take advantage of its hearty flavour 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 flavour: You guessed it – “a maple taste that is stronger than robust.” Okay then! What say you, Vermont? “When you need a strong maple flavour 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, the group said, as long as you let it thaw completely and stir in any condensation that forms on the top of the syrup.

Substituting

“Maple syrup is about as sweet as sugar, so you can replace it using an equal amount of syrup,” according to the Vermont-based experts at King Arthur Flour. “Decrease the liquid by three to four tablespoons per one cup substitution.” If you’re adding maple syrup to a recipe that doesn’t call for liquid, you need to increase the flour by one tablespoon for every a quarter cup maple syrup used. KAF emphasises 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” flavour.

Flavouring your own

Runamok’s eclectic infused syrups include such flavours as hibiscus, makrut lime-leaf, smoked chili pepper and ginger. 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 flavour. Keep in mind that it’s better to be conservative than add too much or steep too long.

Uses

“I would just love it if people would start thinking beyond pancakes,” Sorkin said. 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 said it works in tea, too, particularly a black variety (try it in chai). She is, as you would expect, a proponent of maple syrup in drinks.

Sorkin said 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 savoury applications, too, adding just the right balance when played against other flavours. Sorkin, who trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York (now the International Culinary Centre), likes to add a drizzle on top of a sweet potato and tahini dip. Her other recipes include maple vinaigrettes, roasted cabbage and crispy tofu.