We hate to break it to you, but Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth both have imposter syndrome.

By Chris Malloy
October 17, 2019

Maple syrups all look pretty similar: translucent shades of dark or bourbon-brown that turn a little red or yellow when you hold their bottles up to the light. But are all maple syrups created equal? You’ve probably tasted the answer at home, in diners, and at pancake houses. Nope, they are not.

Actually, the right way of saying this is that not all "breakfast syrups" are created equal.

This is because “maple syrup” is a narrow category. Not all of the dark, sticky elixirs meant for drizzling on the likes of French toast and waffles are maple syrups. Some are called “pancake syrups.” Though pancake syrups look like maple syrups, they aren’t derived from the sap of maple trees. Rather, the sugar and thick, sticky body come from other sweeteners (often corn syrup) and added colorings (rather than development through the cooking process).

RELATED3 Surprising Ways to Use Maple Syrup

How are real vs. fake maple syrups different? And which ones should you buy?

To make maple syrup, artisans tap maple trees that can grow more than five stories tall, extract sap, and then boil it down. The brown color develops during boiling, as the sugars caramelize and chemically change, leading to a deeper, duskier flavor. The process has ancient roots. The earliest Western maple syrup makers in Canada and the American Northeast learned from indigenous people, who had been using the sap of maple trees for a long time.

When you use maple syrup, you are channeling these traditions and supporting the hardworking artisans who sustain them. For some people, that is an important consideration in choosing which product to buy. Beyond method and origins, maple syrup differs from pancake syrup in taste, texture, and price point.

Pancake syrup is cheaper because it is a more scalable, industrial product. It requires less time and technique to produce. At breakfast time, it tends to drizzle out of the bottle slowly, glopping and hanging. You might say “no really” to this, but pancake syrup does have a densely syrupy mouthfeel, a classically thick body. Its flavor is simple and sweet, a blast of flat sugar meant to mingle nicely with melted butter and soft, brown-griddled pancakes.

Maple syrup is very different.

People go through the trouble of drawing and boiling sap from tall, cold trees for a reason: pure maple syrup can be a beautiful thing.

There are five grades of maple syrup. In color and flavor, they range from light to dark, with the grade’s name describing both coloring and flavor intensity. For the full charm of maple syrup, try going darker. “Grade A: Dark Color & Robust Flavor,” when made well, unfolds with deeper, more enticing caramelized flavors. This grade of syrup brings potent sweetness, sure, but you also get much more. Subtly, you taste dates and piloncillo (Mexican sugar), as well as hints that resemble vanilla.

If you’re looking for a more complex syrup, one closer to American food traditions and the natural world, go maple. Maple syrup is worth the investment.

We now return to the first question: Is good maple syrup worth the investment? Maple syrup is worth the investment relative to pancake syrup, sure, but is expensive maple syrup worth the investment relative to other, cheaper maple syrup?

Not always. This is because you can find great maple syrups at friendly prices. Spending a lot more generally doesn’t translate to a worthwhile boost in quality. In fact, Trader Joe’s offers a great selection of affordable maple syrups that become even more affordable (per ounce) as you buy bigger bottles. But the TJ’s 12-ounce “Organic Maple Syrup” for $7.99 is a syrup with deep charms, one available in a smaller glass package.  

With a maple syrup like this, think beyond the pancake. It can be used to glaze grilled fish. It can be used in drinks like mojitos. It should be celebrated, and, best of all, doesn’t have to cost all that much.

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