What better way to kick off the inaugural season of Iron Chef Canada than with the most Canadian secret ingredient of all: maple syrup? Considering the sweet, sticky stuff is one of our country’s biggest exports (more than 40 million maple products left our borders in 2015), it was the perfect ingredient to showcase in the Canadian Kitchen Stadium during the premiere episode.

Ever since indigenous populations taught European settlers how to harvest maple trees, most of us have been saps for the golden stuff on a fresh stack of pancakes or woven into the fabric of our favourite breakfast meats like ham, sausage and bacon. But as Iron Chef Lynn Crawford and challenger Chef Marc Lepine proved, it’s also a great ingredient to smoke with, glaze with, marinade with, and even poach with.

In celebration of this sweet secret ingredient, here’s everything you ever wanted to know about maple syrup.

 

What is maple syrup?

This perfectly vegan sweetener is derived from the sap of maple trees and comes in two grades: Grade A and Processing Grade. The former is the stuff that winds up in our pantries, and it comes in four colour classes: golden, amber, dark and very dark. The earlier the sap is harvested the lighter the resulting syrup’s colour will be, but they’re all delicious—it’s really just a matter of personal preference.

When is maple syrup season?

In Canada, sap is gathered between March and April depending on the region. The best time to collect it is when the nights are still cold but the days warm up, creating pressure in the trees that push water down.

The maple syrup process

Each spring maple farmers tap trees with traditional buckets or more modern tubing, collecting usually no more than 1.5 litres from each tree (roughly one-tenth of the overall sugar) in order to sustain production and the tree’s overall health.

The sap is then sent to a storage tank before moving along to the sugar house, where it’s boiled down in order to evaporate the water content and reach a sugar concentration of 66 per cent. Traditionally, 40 litres of sap produces one litre of actual syrup.

What is maple sugar?

When the sap is further boiled down and almost all of its water content is evaporated, the result is crystallized, maple sugar. Producers sell maple sugar in large blocks, or it can be moulded into shapes for candy or even granulated and used in place of regular sugar for an extra maple kick.

If you’re subbing maple sugar into a recipe, use it the same way you would cane sugar. It’s sweeter than white sugar, so reduce your measurements accordingly. Meanwhile, maple sugar is also great when creamed with butter for cookies and cakes, as a topping on oatmeal, or as a hit of sweetness in a rub for meats.

What are some other maple products?

Maple butter, maple candy and maple cream are all popular sellers.

Where can you buy maple syrup?

Luckily in Canada, maple syrup is readily available: stock at grocery stores, farmers’ markets, speciality shops and even airports always lines the shelves. No wonder it’s such a popular item for Canadian politicians and diplomats to gift while abroad.

Maple syrup production in Canada and Quebec

In 2015 Canada produced 8,908 gallons of maple syrup from more than 10,000 maple farmers and more than 44 million taps, with exports estimated to be worth $360 million. In fact, we export nearly 80 per cent of the world’s total maple supply, with countries like Japan, Germany, France and the U.S. being our biggest customers. While Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are all big maple syrup players, 90 per cent of our syrup comes from Quebec alone.

Does maple syrup have health benefits?

Maple syrup is certainly high in sugar, but it’s also better for you than refined sugar because it contains key nutrients like manganese, calcium and zinc. Overall 100 per cent natural maple syrup also contains fewer calories and a higher concentration of minerals than honey, and it has a glycemic index of 54 (sugar is 58 and honey weighs in at 57). It’s no wonder health products like maple water have been springing up on store shelves.

What is the Global Strategic Reserve?

Maple syrup is such a hot Canadian commodity that more than $100 million worth of the liquid gold currently sits in what some refer to as the “Fort Knox of maple syrup,” a.k.a. the Global Strategic Reserve. Three separate sites located in Quebec house the sweet, sweet, nectar. The supply is meant to help stabilize overall price and to build a stock that allows marketers to sell the product as an everyday alternative to sugar. Considering the global demand has been increasing five-to-six per cent per year since 2010, it’s a good backup to have.

A sticky, maple heist

A barrel of maple syrup can be worth more than 13 times the price of crude oil, which makes it a hot commodity for sticky-fingered bandits. One of the biggest incidents on record was in 2012 when workers at a holding warehouse in Quebec turned up an empty barrel during a routine inventory check. Further investigation uncovered dozens of barrels that had been secretly filled with water. In total, six million pounds (a whopping $18.7 million worth) of maple syrup was missing.

An official investigation launched by the Quebec Provincial Police uncovered a heist involving more than 25 people. Eventually, the leader, Richard Vallières, was found guilty of theft, fraud and trafficking of stolen goods after it was discovered he had been selling the syrup to a buyer from New Brunswick. Vallières was sentenced to eight years in prison and fined $9.4 million.

A Canadian hobby

While the production of maple syrup is certainly a hot industry, anyone with maple trees in their backyard can produce the stuff if they really want. Indeed, harvesting maple syrup has become something of a hobby for many outdoorsy Canadians. Where things get sticky is when small-batch producers and local farms attempt to sell the stuff on a higher level. Thanks to strict regulations involving wholesale markets and exports, some would-be sellers face specific maple syrup taxes and commissions.

Visiting the old maple sugar bush

If you were a kid growing up in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick or Nova Scotia, chances are you’ve headed out to a maple sugar shack to witness the production of Canada’s liquid gold. It’s a quintessential Canadian outing (and a popular school field trip!)  in which visitors can learn about the overall production process, take wagon rides, eat some syrup-laden pancakes and sausages and of course, mow down on some sweet maple candy.

Cooking with maple syrup

Maple adds a distinct layer of flavour to many sweet and savoury dishes. If you’re subbing it in for white sugar, use 2/3 of a cup of maple for every cup of sugar and reduce the quantity of overall liquid in the recipe by one-fourth. Maple can also be used in place of other liquid sweeteners like honey, corn syrup and molasses in a one-to-one ratio, giving you a perfectly maple-inspired treat.

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