So, you're in the grocery store aisle or at a market booth, and in front of you are rows of maple syrup bottles. Prices start at $10, but many of the larger bottles cost more than that. You're prepared to spend the money, but how do you know which bottle to buy? Not only are there different labels and descriptions for each bottle, but they're all made in different states, and in Canada.
Don't be discouraged! Here are three things to consider before purchasing a bottle of maple syrup:
Look to see it's made of real maple syrup.
The first tip is the most obvious: check the ingredients to confirm that it's made of 100% pure maple syrup, not maple "flavor" or high-fructose corn syrup. Sometimes there might be a mix, but if you really want to experience the good stuff, it's got to be all syrup and nothing else.
Pick a region, and experiment!
Almost all of the maple syrup in the US is made in one of 9 states, most of them in New England. Those 9 states include: Vermont (which is the #1 producer of maple syrup in the United States), New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Canada (particularly in the Quebec region) is the other major maple syrup producer.
This begs the question: does one state or region have better quality syrup than another? The answer is no. Much like wine, the flavor of maple syrup is affected by a given region's particular soil, weather conditions, and tree genetics. Flavor is also influenced by the producer's chosen processing method. (The Robb Family Farm's operation is entirely wood-fired, for example, which they believe leads to a more caramelized flavor.)
Every region and state is capable of producing delicious, high-quality maple syrup; any resulting flavor variations and intricacies are meant to be sampled and enjoyed!
However, it should be noted that Vermont produces slightly denser syrup than other states. Vermont requires its syrup to have a 66.9% sugar density, whereas other states top out a little lighter at 66%. As Helen Robb told me, this is both a requirement and a style choice. Vermont sugar makers believe the extra density gives them an advantage in the market because their syrup feels more substantial in the mouth — so if you know you like thick, gooey syrup, Vermont is a good place to start.
Know how you plan to use the syrup.
The last, and perhaps most important, consideration you should make when buying a bottle of maple syrup is understanding what you plan to use it for. Ask yourself: do you want a strong maple flavor or not? That's pretty much what it comes down to.
The new grading system, which you can see above and which I wrote about yesterday, is meant to eliminate the confusion surrounding the flavors of Fancy, Grade A and Grade B, and instead turn people's attention to the maple flavor itself.
- If you want a very light maple flavor, ideally suited for ice cream or for buttermilk pancakes, then choose Golden Color with a Delicate Taste (previously known as Grade A Light Amber, or Grade A Fancy).
- If you plan to use the maple syrup in baked goods where you want a present but subtle maple flavor, like this Harvest Cake with Goat Cheese Frosting, try Amber Color with Rich Taste (previously known as Grade A Medium Amber).
- If you're baking something where the maple flavor is absolutely the star of the show, like these Maple Pecan Blondies, then choose a darker syrup with a strong maple flavor, like the Dark with Robust Taste (previously known as Grade A Dark Amber or Grade B).
Once you've purchased your maple syrup and opened the bottle, remember to store it in the refrigerator or freezer. Glass bottles are preferred if you plan to store your syrup for two years or more, while plastic jugs will keep syrup fresh in the refrigerator for up to four months.
(Image credits: Cambria Bold; Faith Durand; Vermont Maple Sugar Maker's Association)