A Complete Guide to Choosing & Using Maple Syrup

by | Updated: October 14th, 2020 | Read time: 5 minutes

If the fall harvest and cooler weather have you thinking about all things maple, you’re not alone. Bring on the whole-grain pancakes, candied yams and baked apples adorned with maple syrup.

But first, make sure you know the basics of buying and using maple syrup to get the best results and most enjoyment.

Maple Syrup Facts Represented by Syrup Pouring From Wooden Spoon into Small Glass Cup Beside Bottle of Maple Syrup on Wood Surface | Vitacost.com/blog

What is maple syrup?

It’s a simple question, but the sweet liquid many people use to top pancakes and waffles isn’t actually maple syrup.

“Many consumers don’t understand the difference between fake pancake syrup filled with corn syrup and artificial flavoring versus 100% pure maple syrup,” says Christy Brissette, MS, RD, a brand ambassador for Maple from Canada. Maple syrup imposters also commonly contain preservatives like sodium benzoate.

So, how do you know you’re getting the real thing? “When shopping for maple syrup, it’s important to turn the bottle over and look on the label to make sure there is only one ingredient: pure maple syrup,” Brissette says.

If the price holds you back from buying pure maple syrup, it’s important to understand what you’re really getting. “Maple syrup is a 100% natural product — it’s boiled maple tree sap,” says Cory Ayotte, communications director at the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association. “A lot of work goes into producing it.”

Consider that it takes about 40 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of pure maple syrup. Plus, the harvest season is very short — generally around four to six weeks, depending on the weather.

Though many people associate maple syrup with the fall season, Ayotte explains that maple syrup is harvested in the spring. The flow of maple tree sap is prompted by alternating periods of nighttime freezing and daytime thawing. When the trees start to bud, the sap tends to develop off-flavors and the harvest ends for the year.

It’s also worth noting that brands offering certified organic maple syrup must follow many special regulations for producing the syrup and must keep up with a lot of additional paperwork. This can impact the product cost, too.

Maple syrup grades

In recent years, you may have noticed a shift in how maple syrup is labeled. You won’t see syrup labeled “grade B” anymore. It’s now all “grade A” with new color and flavor descriptors. This change is due to new federal guidelines for grades of maple syrup initiated in 2015 and adopted by producers in the United States and Canada.

“A lot of people thought grade B was lower quality,” Ayotte says. “In fact, it was just darker syrup from sap gathered later in the season. The light, golden-colored syrup is generally from sap harvested at the beginning of the season.”

To ease confusion and provide consistency in the market, maple syrup is now described with the following color and taste descriptors:

  • Grade A Golden Color / Delicate Taste — Has a mild maple taste
  • Grade A Amber Color / Rich Taste — Has a full-bodied maple taste of medium intensity
  • Grade A Dark Color / Robust Taste — Has a stronger maple taste than the lighter colors; was formerly Grade B
  • Grade A Very Dark Color / Strong Taste — Has a maple taste stronger than robust

Just as cheddar cheese is categorized as mild, medium, sharp or extra-sharp (and none are inferior), it’s similar with maple syrup. The type you choose is a matter of personal preference and how you plan to use it.

According to the USDA, consumers are increasingly looking for the darkest colors of maple syrup for cooking and table use. Ironically, what some consumers mistakenly thought was second-rate is actually highly sought-after syrup.

Maple syrup nutrition

Whether maple syrup is “healthier” than refined table sugar is a popular question. Scientists have found that maple syrup is substantially higher in antioxidants than refined white sugar, corn syrup and agave nectar.

In addition, the darker the maple syrup, the higher the antioxidants. The extent to which this might favorably impact your health isn’t certain, but lab tests suggest the antioxidants in maple syrup may help protect the health of your cells.

Maple syrup also offers vitamins and minerals, though mostly in small amounts. That said, a 2-tablespoon serving of maple syrup provides an impressive 39% of the Daily Value for riboflavin and 50% of the Daily Value for manganese (though this can vary somewhat with the source). You need manganese for a healthy immune system and riboflavin for energy production.

No one would suggest guzzling maple syrup just to get vitamins and minerals, but the nutrients are a nice bonus. Keep in mind that a 2-tablespoon serving of maple syrup has 104 calories, which come from the 27 grams of naturally-occurring sugars in the syrup.

To put that into perspective, U.S. government dietary guidelines advise that the average adult limit the intake of added sugars to 50 grams a day. So, as with many things, moderation is important when using maple syrup.

Best ways to use maple syrup

There are countless ways to use maple syrup beyond topping pancakes. Ayotte usually starts his day by stirring a little maple syrup into his coffee and oatmeal. He says many people like to use maple syrup for baking.

To substitute maple syrup for granulated white sugar in baked goods, Ayotte gives these guidelines:

  • Per each 1 cup of sugar called for, substitute 3/4 cup of pure maple syrup
  • Decrease the liquid in the recipe by 2 to 4 tablespoons for each cup of syrup used
  • Add 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, unless the recipe already calls for buttermilk, sour milk or sour cream
  • Decrease the oven temperature by 25-degrees Fahrenheit since maple syrup tends to caramelize more quickly

Ayotte also notes that people like to use the dark and very dark maple syrups for baking. The flavor of these dark syrups tends to hold up better when heated.

There are also countless ways to use maple syrup beyond baking. “Maple syrup can add depth and complexity to a wide range of entrees,” Brissette says. “It can be used as an ingredient in glazes, rubs or barbecue sauces for poultry, meat, seafood or vegetables.”

Brissette suggests some other ways to use pure maple syrup, including:

  • Add a little “golden delicate” syrup to fresh fruit, plain yogurt or ice cream
  • Include “amber rich” syrup in vinaigrettes and desserts
  • Try “dark robust” syrup in cooking, baking, sauces and fruity dishes
  • Enjoy “very dark strong” syrup in sauces and glazes
  • Use any favorite syrup to sweeten tea, hot chocolate, smoothies and cocktails

Are you craving a little maple syrup yet? Peruse some recipes, tie on your apron and enjoy this simple, natural sweetener.