Beyond Maple Sugaring: A Year in Homemade Syrups

July 20, 2018

The flower of the elderberry, which blooms in midsummer, can be used to make syrup too. While there are cultivars, wild elderberry like this one grows in most of Continental U.S. and Southern and Coastal Canada. Making elderflower syrup is a tradition that hails from Scandinavia and Central Europe.

elderberry bushThere’s been something we’ve been meaning to discuss for some time now. And that is the fact that maple is only one of nature’s bountiful, forageable syrups. Yes, it’s true! Here we are, trying to sell you maple syrup making equipment, and we’ve neglected to tell you that there’s so, so much more you can do with your subsistence syrup production. Let’s fix that!

Take, for example, the Black Walnut and related Butternut trees: their sap is flowing at about the same time and in about the same places as the maple. That is to say, during late winter and early spring in the Northeastern, Midwestern and Mid Atlantic U.S. and much of Canada. Researchers at Cornell University hypothesize that the sugar content in a black walnut tree is similar to that of a maple– meaning that it would take, on average, 40 gallons of walnut sap to make a gallon of walnut syrup.  Like maple, walnut syrup can easily be made at home, and reportedly has a lovely, light, nutty-maple taste. Curious? Us too! While a quick online search reveals that most of what’s on the market is replete with corn syrup, we did find some 100% pure black walnut syrup made by some folks in Ohio on ebay. Tempting!  And spendy. But you can make your own! Take a year off of maple? Make two syrups at once on your trusty Sapling Evaporator? Or try a maple-walnut syrup and invent something new! (Hint, hint: there’s a business opportunity there. The only hybrid available online appears to be maple infused with toasted walnuts. Not the same!)

Then there’s the Birch, a tree native to the Northern U.S., Canada and Alaska, and traditionally used to make syrup in Russia, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe​. Conveniently, birch sap starts running in spring proper, as maples are winding down, so you can conceivably reuse your maple tools and equipment on the birch. Not so conveniently, the sugar content of the birch tree is so low, it reportedly takes anywhere from 100 to 200 gallons of birch sap to make a gallon of syrup. Yikes. Birch syrup is not a pancake syrup, but is used to flavor meats and drinks. Reminiscent of amortentia – oh ye of Harry Potter fandom – It has a chameleon taste variously described as balsamic, molasses, caramel, soy and spice. Birch syrup is expensive, but widely available on the market. Our own Alaska is the biggest producer of birch syrup. Considering the work involved, maybe take a taste before committing your time and energy? Or for the not-so-feint-of-heart, fire up your Sapling Evaporator again and just jump in!

Speaking of Alaska, up there they also make Spruce Tip Syrup, not from the pitch of a pine tree, but by harvesting the tree’s new shoots in late spring, soaking them in sugar water, and evaporating to consistency. Like birch, spruce tip syrup has savory applications, including dressing poultry dishes, and makes for a great spritzer or cocktail. Oh for some spruce tip syrup for tonight’s gin and tonic! Alas, not even the internet is that fast, although spruce tip syrup is available there, and from the good folks at Birch Boy Syrup in . . . you guessed it . . . Alaska. Spruce is another syrup easily made at home, and, admittedly, in small quantities, can be made indoors on your stove in the stockpot. (Then, install your Sapling Smoking Package and smoke yourself a chicken glazed in spruce syrup! See what we did there?) Not Alaskan? Not to worry. The spruce is native to most of the Continental U.S. and Southern and Coastal Canada. So next spring, maybe spruce things up a bit! With spruce!

And now were into summer syrups! Like spruce tips, Elderflower and Dandelion blooms are soaked, sweetened and evaporated into syrups. Elderberry bushes can be purchased and cultivated much like blueberries, but, before you spend money, look around, wild elderberries are widespread in most of Continental U.S. and Southern and Coastal Canada, and are traditionally harvested to make elderflower syrup at home in Europe as well. Dandelions are traditionally used to make homemade dandelion syrup in Scandinavia and are native to . . . well . . . planet Earth. Both syrups are reportedly sweet and floral and can be used in drinks, dietary tinctures,  or as a substitute for maple syrup on waffles or pancakes. Elderflower syrup is widely available online, if you’d like to try a taste first, but read your labels to make sure you’re getting the pure stuff – artificial flavorings abound! With dandelions, you are on your own as dandelion syrup does not seem to be commercially available. Not convinced? Give dandelion green apple syrup a try instead! Like spruce, neither syrup requires anything outside of kitchen equipment for small batches. (But imagine you and your closest friends sipping on sweet somethings while grilling on the . . . you guessed it . . . Sapling Party Grill. I think you get the picture!)

As summer turns to fall, think Apple Cider and Hickory syrups! We’ve made apple cider syrup on our Sapling Evaporator and our Seedling Urban Evaporator to great effect these last few years. And we will be partnering with Mrs. Frugalwoods & Co. to produce some more this September. Apple cider syrup is a hybrid sweet and sour syrup that is great on pancakes and waffles, in drinks, in salad dressings and as a flavoring for meats. It is available at many maple sugar houses, and online from companies like Carr’s Ciderhouse in Massachusetts. With a ratio of about six gallons of cider to one gallon of syrup, however, it is easily and quickly made at home from any pressed apples on your otherwise-dormant maple sugaring equipment (mess factor alert: best to keep it out of the kitchen). Like syrups made from sap, apple cider syrup needs no recipe (although we will record our experience this fall and pass it along) but hickory syrup – a versatile syrup made from the bark of the tree and boasting a smokey, woody flavor – does. Here’s how to make hickory syrup at home. Or you can buy some from the Lehman family’s Virginia operation. Depending on quantity, it looks like you could use your kitchen or your outdoor maple syrup making equipment for hickory, a tree that is native throughout the eastern U.S.

And that’s a full year of syrups for you! From maple and black walnut in late winter, through birch and spruce tip in spring, elderflower and dandelion in summer and apple and hickory in fall, we hope we’ve piqued your interest in broadening your syrup-making horizons!*

*In Asia, the Canary Islands and Coastal South America, syrup is made from the sap of the Palm tree. If you are on a sacred mission to taste all syrups, have no fear. Palm syrup is available online!