Finally, after years of talking about it, we tapped some sugar maple trees and boiled down the sap to make maple syrup. The syrup we produced is rich in maple flavour and tastes all the more delicious because we produced it ourselves.
Our home is in Southern Ontario, in the heart of the sugar maple’s (Acer saccharum) range. Around here, real maple syrup is easy to find at farmers markets, at farmgate sales on Mennonite farms or at any Maple Syrup Festival. Despite its easy availability, we wanted to try our hand at making it ourselves. It would be one more check mark on our list of Self-sufficiency To Dos.
We tried. We succeeded (with lots of room for improvement). And we’re doing it again next year. While not labour intensive, it does take time and effort to produce a batch of maple syrup. But for us, all that time and effort are worthwhile. Real maple syrup, in addition to being delicious, really is a better option than refined sugars and even some natural sugars.
Real maple syrup is a natural sugar, so too are honey and molasses. Each of these natural sugars offers us something different; not only in flavour, but also in terms of actual beneficial properties that we gain through consumption. Molasses, dark and thick, offers the most antioxidants compared with honey and maple syrup. Honey has more vitamins than maple syrup, but it also has more sugars, primarily from fructose. Maple syrup has more nutrients than honey and less overall sugar.
When compared to refined sugars, real maple syrup is a much better option for our health. Where maple syrup replaces refined sugars in a diet, it yields a net benefit to health. Maple syrup, at its most basic, is the result of tree sap after 97% of the water has evaporated through boiling. Sugarcane stalks or sugar beets, in contrast, are mechanically harvested, cleaned, washed, milled, extracted, juiced, filtered, purified, vacuumed, and condensed. After all that processing, which occurs prior to actual sugar crystal formation, is it any wonder refined sugars are detrimental to our health?
Maple syrup appears to be a much less harmful sweetener. One reason is that it’s stronger flavor results in less of it being consumed. It also scores lower on the glycemic index (54) than cane sugar (65). But real maple syrup actually contains compounds that help rather than harm our bodies. One tablespoon of real maple syrup contains trace amounts of manganese, zinc, calcium, potassium, iron, and magnesium. We also receive antioxidants that can protect cells from DNA damage and mutation. Furthermore, it’s plant-based compounds help reduce our oxidative stress, which is responsible for weakening our immune systems and increasing the rate of aging.
In the end, though, maple syrup is still a simple sugar. It’s best to use it as an alternative to refined sugars and consume it in moderation. If used in baking, replace the amount of sugar with an equal amount of maple syrup, but be sure to reduce the total amount of liquid in the recipe by about a half cup to maintain the consistency of the original recipe.
Real maple syrup can be certified organic if it is produced using only stainless steel pans or food grade plastic and only if certified organic oils are employed as de-foamers. Traditionally, lard, butter, milk or cream were added to the boiling sap to reduce foaming.
Conventional producers may use synthetic foaming agents and emulsifiers when boiling down the sap. Among which are food additives derived from genetically modified products, such as monoglycerides and diglycerides. If using old galvanized containers for collecting or storing the sap, lead can leach into the sap.
The maple syrup we produced did not have any synthetic foaming agents; we were working with small (12 gallon) batches and simply skimmed off the foam as it formed. We boiled our sap in stainless steel pans over a wood fire (we made a maple syrup arch constructed out of cinderblocks, dirt, and a stovepipe). When collecting the sap from the trees, we used food grade plastic pails, stored the sap for a couple days (if necessary) in food grade buckets in a fridge, and then boiled it down in stainless steel pans.
Our homemade maple syrup is organic, very local, and definitely worthy of making an annual tradition.
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