Canada’s sweetest export adds complexity to a range of dishes, not to mention a few nutritional perks.

The first crop of the season isn’t asparagus, rhubarb, or foraged fiddleheads. It’s maple syrup, of course. This month, as a harbinger to spring, Canadian producers can start tapping maple trees to make their distinctive, sweet syrup.

Only a few varieties of maple trees, mostly found in the southeastern part of the country, have the high sugar content that is necessary for making the maple syrup we adore. In Canada, Quebec is the leading tree goo producer, with Ontario and the Maritimes following behind.

For the green conscious among us, tapping maple trees does no long-term damage to the tree. And instead of the traditional funnel and bucket, some modern producers are now using a more efficient tubing system that transports sap directly from the trees to a central processing area.

As daytime temperatures warm in conjunction with frosty nights, the starch in maple trees is converted into sugar by enzymes. The sap is sweet enough for only a few fleeting weeks each year. The crude, almost tasteless maple sap contains just 2 to 5 percent sugar, with the rest being water that must be evaporated away.

It takes about 40 litres of maple sap to produce just a mere litre of viscous syrup, a scant one-fortieth of the original volume. Which is why the art of making maple syrup has not caught on as a DIY kitchen project. The syrup can be further boiled down to make maple candy, butter, and sugar.

Sweet nutrition

We should be proud that Canada is the world’s leading producer of one of the healthiest sweeteners around. A star among its sweetener brethren, maple syrup contains several nutrients essential to good health such as zinc, iron, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, making it a good choice to satisfy a sabre-sized sweet tooth.

Another win for Team Maple Syrup: a 2010 study in Nutrition Journal discovered that maple syrup has a higher antioxidant capacity than several sweeteners such as honey, cane sugar, corn syrup, brown sugar, and stevia.

In fact, a recent study conducted at the University of Rhode Island found a cocktail of 20 different antioxidant compounds in a sample of maple syrup from Quebec, including phenolics similar to those found in berries. The body uses these antioxidants to disarm the trouble-making free radicals that can damage cells, leading to a number of chronic diseases. Faux syrups made with maple flavouring will be devoid of these disease-thwarting antioxidants.

Despite these nutritional benefits, suffice to say it’s still important to watch your portions. With a high concentration of fast-digesting sugars, pouring prodigious amounts of maple syrup on your flapjacks can cause unwanted Buddha-belly.

As these recipes demonstrate, the uses for maple syrup in the kitchen truly run the gamut, as its unique flavour marries well with a panoply of ingredients to help elevate a dish from ho-hum to yum.

Great grades

Pure maple syrup must have a sugar content of at least 66 percent and be free of additives. In other words, you won’t find corn syrup or lab-created colouring in the good stuff. Inferior imitation syrups may not contain any real maple at all.

Authentic maple syrup in Canada must state which of these three grades it is.

No. 1: The lightest in colour and mildest flavoured, this grade includes extra light, light, and medium syrups. It is the most popular table syrup and is used to make maple candy.

No. 2: Also called amber, this syrup is made later in the tapping season and is between No. 1 and No. 3 in colour and flavour. Can be used for both cooking and as a table syrup.

No. 3: Produced at the end of the season as the days warm, it has a deep amber hue and robust maple flavour that is ideal for cooking, though maple syrup aficionados may enjoy its rich, bold taste over pancakes and French toast as well.

If unopened, maple syrup will keep in a cool, dark location indefinitely. Once opened, maple syrup must be refrigerated to keep mold growth at bay.

Recipes

About the Author

Matthew Kadey, MSc, RD, is an Ontario-based dietician and food writer who always has a jug of No. 3 in his fridge.