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SYRUPS. Syrup is essentially sugar dissolved in water, with or without flavors. Candy making relies almost exclusively on the special qualities of hot sugar syrups. Other foods which use them as ingredients are ice creams, baked items, drinks, and preserved fruit.

Maple syrup, made in eastern Canada and in the northeastern part of the United States, is a special product, made by boiling down sap from maple trees. It is made in early spring, and the special flavor of this product is much appreciated on pancakes and waffles and in frostings, desserts, and candies. Other countries also make syrups from fruit juices or tree sap. Grape juice syrup is known as pekmez in Turkey and dibs in the Arabian Gulf states (dibs can also be based on date juice). Pomegranate juice is boiled down to make syrup for drinks and cooking in Syria, Iran, and neighboring areas, and carob pod syrup is used in Cyprus, Lebanon, and Asia Minor. Honey, although regarded as a different commodity entirely because of the production method, is chemically related to syrups and shares similar characteristics.

In some countries, residues from sugar refining are called syrup, notably Golden Syrup, a branded product sold in the United Kingdom. It has a blander flavor than molasses and is a light gold color. In China and Japan, rice is mixed with malt, whose enzymes break down starch from the grain to give sugar. Corn syrup, produced from maize by a similar method, is an industrial product, important in candy, baking, and drinks manufacture.

Sugar Syrup

Sugar syrups are simple to make but have no agreed formula. Cooks and pastry chefs prepare "stock syrup" using the proportions of sugar to water that are demanded by specific recipes. A basic formula is five cups sugar to four cups water (one kilo to one liter). The two are stirred together until dissolved, brought to the boil, then cooled and refrigerated. Old recipes sometimes call for "light syrup" or "heavy syrup"; only experiment shows what quantities are best. This hit-and-miss system is inadequate for industry, so methods for measuring syrup density (and therefore its sugar content and properties in food) have been devised. The saccharometer, a weighted glass bulb that floats upright in the syrup so that a figure can be read off a scale, has been used since the early nineteenth century. Two types of scaledegrees Baumé (devised by the French chemist Antoine Baumé, 17281804) and a modern decimal systemare used. Special thermometers were devised for candy makers in the late nineteenth century. Modern industry relies on more complex devices.

Maple Syrup

This runny brown syrup with a wonderful flavor is produced from the sap of various maple species, especially the hard or rock maple, Acer saccharum, and the black maple, Acer nigrum. The trees are tapped in early spring when the sap runs in large quantities, especially after a very cold winter and when there are relatively high daytime temperatures and cold nights. A small hole is bored in each trunk and fitted with a spout; the sap is collected in buckets underneath. Several gallons can be collected from a tree without damaging it.

Maple sap contains about 3 percent naturally occurring sugar (sucrose). The accumulated sap is concentrated by boiling until the sucrose content is about 62 percent. It takes between thirty and forty gallons of sap to produce a gallon of syrup. The heating process leads to reactions between the sucrose and amino acids contained in the sap, which produces the color and unique flavor of the syrup. Until the late nineteenth century, the sap was concentrated to a point at which it would form crystals of sugar. This has left a legacy of terms such as "sugar house," "sugar bush," and "sugaring off" that are still in use. However, most production is now aimed at making syrup and maple candy.

Native Americans had their own methods for making maple syrup since they had only flammable birch bark or fragile clay vessels. One method they used for concentrating the sap was heating it with hot stones. Another was allowing it to freeze so that some of the water could be lifted off the top as a block of pure ice, leaving syrup with a higher sugar concentration. European settlers introduced metal kettles, which made boiling easier.

Pure maple syrup has an excellent flavor but is expensive because production is affected by the weather, and it is a labor-intensive cottage industry. Several grades varying in flavor and color are produced, and pale syrup is considered the best quality. The containers bear a controlled symbol of a maple leaf as a guarantee. "Mapleflavored syrup," made by stretching a little true maple syrup with corn syrup, is much cheaper.

Maple syrup is considered very much a North American product, but there were old-world precedents for the idea. Birch sap was collected and used in parts of Europe to make syrup or alternatively, fermented to make "wine." In the Middle East and India, the sap of date palms is still used to make syrup and sugar.

Corn Syrup

Corn syrup is produced by soaking maize kernels. This extracts the starch, which consists of long chains of glucose molecules. Acid or an enzyme is used to break the starch down into shorter lengths, including maltose (the sugar which provides sweetness in malt, two glucose units linked together) and individual glucose molecules. The process can be halted at different stages to give a thick texture (many long chains of glucose molecules) or a sweeter one (more individual molecules); taste and texture can therefore be tailored to the needs of the food industry.

Another enzyme is used to "invert" the glucose to become fructose for high-fructose corn syrup. This has an identical chemical formula but a different molecular structure and tastes intensely sweet. The process is called inversion because glucose rotates a beam of polarized light to the right (hence its alternative name of dextrose), whilst fructose (also known as levulose) rotates it to the left.

Thick corn syrups are much used in candy making because their long-chain molecules help to inhibit the formation of crystals in soft candies without making them overly sweet. Fructose syrups, significantly cheaper than ordinary sugar and more convenient to use, are increasingly important in the soft drinks industry. Other uses for corn syrups include cakes, cookies, pie fillings, jellies, and various composite food products.

The process for making corn syrup is known as hydrolysis. It was discovered by the German-Russian chemist K. S. Kirchhof in 1811 when he heated potato starch in the presence of sulfuric acid and found that it yielded sweet crystals and a syrup. The technique was developed into an industrial process. In 1865 the Union Sugar Company of New York began manufacturing corn syrup.

Uses of Syrup

Syrups of sugar and fruit juice or other essences are used to make drinks and are diluted as required at home or in bulk to make branded drinks at a bottling plant. This use echoes the origin of the word "syrup." It is derived from the Arabic sharab, which originally meant a sweet drink ("sherbet" also comes from this root). Simple sugar syrup is an important ingredient in other drinks such as juleps, a word that has an equally exotic derivation from the Persian golab, meaning rosewater. Fruit syrups are also used as dessert sauces and, when poured over crushed ice in a paper cone, are essential to that summer favorite, the snow cone.

Concentrated syrups are much used in cooking and preserving fruit. They add a sweet flavor and inhibit the growth of spoilage microorganisms. Weak syrups sweeten fruit salads and compotes. Stronger ones are used in canning although concerns about excessive sugar consumption led to the substitution of fruit juices in the late twentieth century. Fruit is candied or crystallized by steeping it in increasingly concentrated syrups. Starting with a light syrup, osmosis allows the sugar to penetrate the cells of the fruit. The syrup strength is concentrated progressively over several days until enough sugar has been absorbed to prevent the fruit from rotting. This technique was brought to North America by the earliest European settlers. Compotes and candied fruit represent a cooking and preserving spectrum which goes back to medieval Europe.

The chemical and physical properties of syrups make them exceptionally useful in industrial baking. Many syrups are hygroscopic, that is, they attract water. Because of this, corn syrup is added to cakes and cookies, where it softens the texture and extends shelf-life. Honey has long been used in this way, for example, in Lebkuchen, the traditional German gingerbread.

Many cultures use syrups in traditional baking. The English use sugar syrup to glaze the hot cross buns made for Good Friday and put golden syrup into treacle tarts, distant relations of shoofly pies, which are made with molasses. Babas, small rich yeast cakes of eastern European origin, are soaked in rum-flavored syrup. In the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, many pastries require syrup as a sweetener. A well-known example is baklava, made of layers of thin pastry with a nut filling, over which syrup is poured after baking (sugar syrup sometimes substitutes for the traditional honey). Jellabies (also jalebi ), deep-fried batter spirals widely made in the Middle East, and gulab jamun, Indian confections of flour and reduced milk, are sweetened and stored in syrup. Chinese and Japanese cultures use malt syrup in traditional desserts and candies.

Nutritionally, syrups provide concentrated energy but little else. They also tend to be used in energy-dense foods such as candies, desserts, and baked goods, all of which are considered undesirable for good health in large quantities. Diets high in sugars and other carbohydrates are also less likely to be high in essential nutrients. Particular worries are expressed by nutritionists over soft drinks. They are consumed in large amounts by certain sectors of the population in the developed world, and they are thought to be especially bad for the teeth. However, the food and drink industries consider syrups of enormous value in enhancing the flavor and texture in numerous foods and drinks. Corn syrup in particular is simple to use and relatively cheap, so it is likely that syrups will continue to be used in large quantities.

See also Candy and Confections ; Fruit ; Sugar and Sweeteners ; Sugar Crops and Natural Sweeteners .


Densmore, Frances. Uses of Plants by the Chippewa Indians: How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine, and Crafts. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1928. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1974. Also published in Canada as Indian Use of Wild Plants for Crafts, Food, Medicine and Charms. Oshweken, Ontario: Indian Reprints, 1993.

Fussell, Betty. The Story of Corn. New York: Knopf, 1992.

McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York: Scribners, 1984.

Nearing, Helen, and Scott Nearing. The Maple Sugar Book. New York: Schocken, 1950.

Laura Mason

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