Maple syrup is among the oldest agricultural products produced in Minnesota. Maple syruping has been a spring tradition in this region for centuries. The Ojibwe, Cree, and Dakota Indians knew that once the crows and eagles return to the Midwest from their winter homes, the maple sap would soon begin to flow. That is when families moved to the “sugar bush,” as the maple forests were often called, to get ready to tap maple trees.

Sap collection began when the days were warm and temperatures rose but nights dipped below freezing. The freeze-thaw cycle causes the sap to run, making it easy to collect. Even today in the metro area, you may find sap buckets hanging from sugar maples as the trees come out of their winter dormancy. Maple syruping remains alive and well in Minnesota.

From Sap to Syrup

Tapping the trees is just the first step in making maple syrup. Traditionally, once maple sap was collected, it was placed in a big pot and set over smoldering coals. The goal was to keep the fire hot enough so that water evaporated, making the liquid sweeter and thicker. Boiling down the harvested sap was a multi-day process since it takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of finished syrup.

In Minnesota, maple syrup production is considered a boutique industry, with mostly small-scale production rather than large commercial operations (as they have in eastern states like Vermont). Currently, 30 maple syrup producers are listed in the Minnesota Grown directory. The president of the Minnesota Maple Syrup Association estimates annual syrup production in Minnesota at around 35,000 gallons, including syrup produced by professionals as well as hobbyists.

Buying Maple Syrup

The United States Department of Agriculture revised the maple syrup grading system in 2015, in response to a request from the International Maple Syrup Institute. Since then, maple syrup is classified into four different types of Grade A syrup. By labeling it Grade A, producers are telling you that their syrup has a uniform color, is free from off flavors and odors, is free from cloudiness and sediment, and is not more than 68.9 percent solids.

Of the four varieties, the most delicate in flavor is labeled golden while amber has a slightly richer maple flavor. The other two varieties, dark and very dark, have a stronger maple taste. With their more robust maple flavor, one of the latter two varieties would be a good choice for cooking or baking with maple syrup.  

Using Maple Syrup

In colonial times, maple syrup was a local alternative to imported sugar. Today maple syrup remains an all-natural locally sourced sweetener. As skepticism about artificial sweeteners and corn syrup has grown, maple syrup has enjoyed increasing popularity.

Maple syrup has many uses beyond topping your morning pancakes or waffles. In recipes, it is an easy substitute for corn syrup or honey. Stir maple syrup into tea or plain yogurt for a sweet touch. Drizzle it over roasted squash, sweet potatoes or carrots. Use it in when making salad dressings, barbecue or teriyaki sauces, baked goods, and confections. Or choose maple syrup for making homemade granola.

This granola recipe is adapted from one at Food 52.com. It contains no brown sugar, unlike the original recipe, but is still plenty sweet for my kiddos, who tend to think that breakfast food by definition has got at least a bit of sweetness to it.  

Maple Granola

3½ cups old-fashioned rolled oats

½ cup wheat germ

1 cup raw sunflower seeds

1 cup chopped walnuts

½ cup maple syrup

½ cup canola oil

½ teaspoon vanilla

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup dried cranberries

Heat oven to 300° F. Spray a rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray. Mix rolled oats, wheat germ, seeds, and nuts in a large bowl. Add syrup, oil, and salt. Stir until well combined. Press the granola mixture in an even layer into the prepared baking sheet. Bake for about 45 minutes or until granola is toasted, stirring halfway through to prevent excess browning on the edges. Try to stir gently and keep some large chunks if you like your granola lumpy. Cool completely and mix in dried cranberries. Store in an airtight container for up two weeks. (If you can keep it that long.)

This granola is great by the handful, but save at least a little for stirring into yogurt, sprinkling over sliced fresh fruit or garnishing roasted sweet potatoes. Homemade granola is a great hostess gift as well.

By Anita Dualeh