It’s 8 a.m. You’re tired and probably hungover. In front of you is the Mount Everest of pancake stacks. Beyond that is an assortment of maple syrups with labels that say things like "Canada No. 1 Extra Light" or "No. 3 Dark." You nonchalantly butter your flapjacks while eyeing the amber options. What's your next move?
Maple syrup goes through quite an ordeal before it lands in your pantry, so a little respect should be given to this sweet, slow-moving condiment. Before you crack open your next bottle of Canadian delight, consider these tasting notes.
A good, filtered maple syrup will be clear—never cloudy. (Cloudy syrup can indicate spoilage from microorganisms, bacteria or fermentation.) Hold the bottle up to the light and gently swirl—it should radiate a beautiful amber color. The more light that shines through, the lighter the syrup will be. The opacity of the syrup is a serious matter, as it tells you how the syrup will taste.
When tasting the offerings of the sugar maple tree, look for balance. Lighter syrups should impart a delicate maple flavor to soften its high sugar content, while darker syrups should have a thick maple character without overwhelming the palate. Let the syrup rest on your tongue for a moment. Is it soft and supple? Is it complex and mapley? When it comes to pancakes and waffles, less is usually more where the maple flavor is concerned.
Making sense of the label on your syrup bottle can be tricky, since the Canadian grading system has two parts. First are the number grades: No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3. This number will tell you at which point in the season the sap was collected. (No. 1 is from the earliest point in the season, and so on.) The earlier the sap is collected, the lighter it will be in both color and taste.
The second arm of the grading system is color notation, which ranges from extra light to dark. A syrup labeled "No. 1 Extra Light" will most certainly be more delicate than one labeled "No. 2 Amber."
The Canadian grading system is unique to Canada and is not applied to syrups originating in Vermont or any other part of the syrup-producing United States. While America does produce many lovely syrups, true sapheads swear that region, or terroir, affects flavor. Quebec’s sirop d’érable is the most sought-after. Climate and soil composition are likely contributors to the flavor of syrup.
Pouring the correct syrup onto your breakfast can lead to a lovely sunrise experience; the wrong syrup will leave your Bisquick cakes tasting flat. Light a.m. fare is easily destroyed by weighty syrups. Pancakes, waffles and cereal will always call for a "No. 1 Extra Light" syrup. Choose a syrup labeled "No. 1 Light" for French toast and desserts. These items can stand up to the added flavor due to their heftier construction. If you prefer to take shots of your maple syrup then your best bet is a "No. 1 Medium." Your baking needs will likely also require the strength of a No. 2-grade syrup. No. 3's pronounced maple flavor is often used in commercial foods as a concentrated flavoring agent. These powerful brews are too strong for table syrup.
And then there's “pancake syrup.” Artificial syrups dominate the breakfast aisle with ingredients like high fructose corn syrup and sodium benzoate. (Many Canadians joke that these imitation syrups are tapped from telephone poles.) But they do have their place on the breakfast table: Many a frozen waffle connoisseur has discovered that the pairing of Eggos and Aunt Jemima is a match made in heaven--or hell, depending on your perspective. If you do go to the trouble of flappin’ jacks from scratch then, by god, stick to the real syrup deal.
Now pour with confidence--but remember, pour lightly!