Maple is not an exotic flavor in this country. It’s familiar, comforting and uniquely North American. Always appreciated at breakfast time, maple is now spreading its lingering, distinctive flavor and silky texture across all dayparts. It’s finding its way into vinaigrettes, rubs, roasts, cocktails, infused syrups, grill glazes and mounted sauces.
Chefs land on a win-win when they innovate with maple—it anchors their modern dishes to provenance, comfort and old-fashioned nostalgia without weighing the dishes down with dowdiness. What’s old is new again, and maple is indeed having its moment.
“The past two years have yielded record-breaking numbers in maple syrup production, leading way for an abundance of this sweet sap for creative chefs,” says Sophia Greenia of KOR Food Innovation. “This sweetener is making an appearance in savory breakfast, brunch, salads, sauces, snacks, alternative sweeteners and craft cocktails, just to name a few applications.”
But why now? Apart from the fact that provenance has never meant more to consumers, maple also wears a pretty fetching health halo. Three natural sweeteners lead the pack—maple, honey and agave nectar. But maple taps deep into a North American regional and seasonal pride. “The quest for natural, whole foods is only growing as consumers seek out their benefits” says Lily Gile, account manager for The Culinary Edge. “Maple syrup fits the bill—in its pure form it is a deeply flavorful, all-natural sweetener.”
Two other drivers set maple up as a significant flavor trend. First, the breakfast boom: With the growth in the morning daypart and its creep into all-day offerings, breakfast staples score big with today’s diners. And which flavor rules breakfast? Maple.
Indeed, maple glides gracefully from sweet to savory, creating a flavor bridge that pleases most palates. “We see maple and bacon paired together, stemming from the accidental combination of the two on the classic breakfast diner plate,” says Gile. Maple, hitched to bacon’s brilliant star, has successfully leapt out of the breakfast arena and into dinner and dessert. Look to Denny’s bacon-centric LTO, the Maple Bacon Sundae, for just one of many recent examples of this duo’s flavor takeover.
“This familiar and comforting sweetener succeeds across the menu, most often in sweet-savory pairings,” says Mindy Armstrong, Food IQ’s director of innovation. “Maple is also accompanying the sweet-salty trend, such as the chicken-and-waffles craze.”
Although maple and bacon are perhaps the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of sweet and savory pairings, opportunity for other dance partners abounds. Maple is a social butterfly, finding joy and grace with savory, meaty, boozy and sour. It finds rhythm paired with Sriracha, maybe on a glaze over salmon. Miso and maple over french fries. Apple cider vinegar and maple in a dressing.
“To many chefs, maple has become a great alternative for sweetening marinades, sauces or desserts,” says chef Chris Casson, produce sales and marketing manager for Shamrock Foods. “The flavor profile is complementary to many types of cuisine, and is not as pronounced as honey or some of its other counterparts. This natural sweetener provides great caramelization when grilled or cooked in high heat applications.” This versatility is another huge driver in declaring it a major flavor trend.
Of course, maple syrup is getting the most attention with this trend, but maple flavoring, maple sugar, maple honey (a thicker consistency syrup), maple flakes, maple jam and even maple water are bringing the haunting, lovely flavor of maple to a number of foods and beverages. Smoked maple syrup and flavored varieties like Beast Feast’s habanero and ghost-pepper maple syrup are opening up unique flavor opportunities. In Portland, Maine, newly opened Vena’s Fizz House uses the habanero syrup to give its hot chocolate a signature kick.
“Maple has traceability, a long-standing story and is well trusted and understood as a flavorful ingredient,” says chef-consultant Rob Corliss. “Consumers resonate with these three traits, and as the casualization of dining increases, authenticity and comfort shall too increase. Maple hits on both of these messages, which makes it a value SKU for operators.”
Flavor of the Tree
“It has a wild delicacy of flavor that no other sweet can match. What you smell in freshly cut maple-wood, or taste in the blossom of the tree, is in it. It is then, indeed, the distilled essence of the tree.” American essayist John Burroughs said that of maple back in 1886, and it is exactly that sentiment that springs forward as a flavor trend for today and tomorrow. Another poetic take on maple’s flavor comes from Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides: “Maple is a low-toned sweetener. Honey is like the flute and maple is the oboe—you get a completely different vibe from its place in the orchestra.”
At Milton, Mass.-based Not Your Average Joe’s, Executive Chef Jeffrey Tenner turns to maple throughout the year—from a poached pear salad with spinach, blue cheese and crispy onion strings drizzled with a warm maple vinaigrette to crispy fried Brussels sprouts tossed in salt and maple syrup. “Maple syrup has nostalgia along with its pleasing mouthfeel,” he says. “It’s not cloying. It’s light on the palate and provides a naturally sweet flavor.”
And it’s perhaps one of the best sweeteners to play counterpoint to savory. As evidence, look to ESPN Club at Disney’s BoardWalk for its “angry maple” chicken gravy accompanying jalapeño-cornmeal waffles with fried chicken. Or the Chongqing Chicken Wings with maple-Sriracha sauce at Boston’s Sichuan Garden.
At Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago, Executive Chef Heather Terhune calls maple a year-round staple. “Maple goes really well with fall flavors, but it also pairs well with spring ingredients like rhubarb and strawberries,” she says. “I also like replacing balsamic vinegar with maple, drizzling it over tomatoes or mozzarella.” Terhune uses maple sugar in a dry cure for pork belly, combining it with cinnamon, cloves, ginger and salt. “It’s got a more intense flavor than maple syrup that works really well in a lot of different recipes,” she says. She also menus maple-roasted walnuts. First, she makes a maple simple syrup, tosses the walnuts in the syrup, cooks them on the stovetop then adds more syrup, a bit of salt and bakes them in the oven. “I also prefer using maple sugar over maple syrup in ice cream because it won’t thin out the custard,” says Terhune.
Executive Chef Chip Barnes uses maple sugar with maple syrup in his braised pork belly at Chicago’s Coppervine. “The maple sugar caramelizes along with onion and ginger, then I add pork stock,” he says. “Maple sugar is richer than white sugar, and it gives you those dark, caramel notes.” While sous chef at Chicago’s Moto, he made a maple-butter sauce, emulsifying butter with maple syrup.
The words “pure maple” carry weight and meaning with today’s consumers. A look at the vast array of syrups in the grocery aisle illustrates that Americans are sourcing real maple syrup and are becoming more aware of real maple’s value, and appreciate seeing it on menus.
“Maple answers consumers’ calls for product quality and ingredient provenance—providing transparency in another way,” says Gile. Denver’s Snooze, an A.M. Eatery, goes so far as calling out the name of its pure Vermont syrup in each menu item. “This elevates the average pancake breakfast beyond the generic, still delivering the desired breakfast experience,” adds Gile.
In Aspen, Little Nell’s brunch menu features a maple syrup menu, including varieties from New Hampshire, Michigan and a seven-year bourbon-barrel-aged version from Burton’s Maplewood Farm in Indiana. The menu also offers a maple syrup flight for sampling.
Using real maple syrup on the menu not only speaks to the deliciousness of that particular menu item, but signals to the guest a standard of quality in sourcing.
“Now more than ever, both consumers and chefs are seeking products with known origins,” says KOR’s Greenia. “Maple syrup can certainly play its part in the farm-to-table trend. It also takes on unique flavors from its terroir. Each year’s harvest will have its own unique and authentic characteristics.” Perceived value never tasted so sweet.