In late winter, 2013, I contacted our local forester and asked if he would come to our place and help me identify our sugar maple trees, as we are in the southernmost part of the range where it is possible to tap the trees to make maple syrup – one of my favorite things in the world. He agreed to come out, and we discussed a range of possible dates, when as we were ending our conversation he mentioned as an aside that his favorite had always been hickory syrup, which he preferred over maple. I figured no problem – we’d simply tap the trees when we were tapping the maples.
Wrong. First I learned that hickory sap starts running just as maple sap is stopping, which I guessed would be perfect – we would simply sterilize the taps and move them over to the hickory trees.
Wrong again. As it turns out, hickory syrup is nothing like maple syrup, and does not involve tapping the trees at all. It is, in fact, made from the bark of primarily shagbark hickory trees, though the bark of shellbark hickories is also sometimes used, along with the shells of the nuts themselves. According to some sources, the nut husks can also be used, though other sources advise against using them, so some experimentation is currently underway on our farmstead.
In my initial online research, along with a couple of basic recipes, I discovered that there are currently two commercial companies selling hickory syrup online, although more seem to be in the start-up phase, including a guy who successfully funded his start-up through a Kickstarter campaign. There even used to be a local company based in Cookeville, Tennessee, twenty miles and about half an hour north of us, which made and distributed hickory syrup on a regional basis, though it folded years before we moved here.
I was somewhat surprised to learn that the hickory syrup currently being sold was commanding as much or more as good maple syrup, given that it is far easier to make, and takes a fraction of the time, expense and equipment. Then again, according to the laws of supply and demand, traditional hickory syrup is far rarer these days, thus the reason for the high prices. I suspect that this may change in the coming years.
In previous generations, Hickory syrup was an important cottage industry throughout the Appalachian Mountains, and to a lesser extent throughout the range of the shagbark hickory, becoming far more economically important as the chestnut blight took hold and started killing off the old growth American chestnut trees upon which many of the local economies – along with the entire network of ecosystems – had long depended. Hickory syrup remained an Appalachian staple throughout the Depression and the Second World War, but seems to have fallen out of favor in the 1950s with the advent of a more national food supply, the supermarket, and cheap, readily available commercially packaged foods.
Most mature hickory trees are naturally occurring native trees, neither sprayed nor genetically engineered in any way, and left, as nature intended, to their own devices. We were fortunate when we found our place that there were already a large number of mature shagbark and shellbark hickory, native persimmon and black walnut trees on the property, along with many other species in our mixed deciduous hardwood forest. We are now endeavoring to reintroduce blight-resistant American chestnut trees into the mix, in order to restore our woods to at least a semblance of what they were prior to the arrival of the Europeans.
It is high time to bring back this American original. The basic instructions for hickory bark syrup are simple, and require nothing you don’t already likely have in your kitchen.
First, you need enough hickory bark to almost fill a good-sized pot, such as a stock pot. The recipe I started with specified half a pound, or 8 ounces, of shagbark hickory bark. When collecting the bark, while you can collect shed bark from the ground, make sure that it is relatively fresh and hasn’t started to decay. You can also collect the bark from the trees, but take care to only break off the part that has pulled back naturally from the tree trunk, as if you expose too much new bark, you can expose the tree to pathogens and possibly weaken or kill it. Better to err on the side of caution to ensure that the trees stay around for a long time. 😉
Once you have collected your bark, break it up into pieces small enough to fit easily into the pot, say 6- to 8-inches long, and scrub it well under running water to remove any dirt, debris, lichens or insects.
Place the bark in a 350-degree oven for 15 to 25 minutes, in order to lightly brown the wood, and bring out its full flavor. It is important that the bark not be allowed to char or burn, as this can spoil the flavor of the resulting syrup. By the time you finish this step, your house will smell wonderful.
Next, place the bark in the pot and add enough filtered water to cover. Bring the water to a simmer, and keep simmering for at least thirty to forty-five minutes to extract the flavor. It is very important that you do not allow the water to come to a full boil, as that can turn the resulting extract bitter, by extracting too many of the tannins in the bark. As you should simmer the bark while uncovered, please note that this will add a lot of moisture into your air from the steam, making this a perfect pursuit for cold nights during the fall or winter.
Strain out the bark, returning the extract to the pan, and continue simmering until the volume is reduced by roughly 25%, which will give you a more strongly flavored syrup. Measure the resulting extract and add twice that amount of sugar: for example, if you wind up with four cups of extract, you will add eight cups of sugar, and so on. In other words, you are making a simple syrup with the extract.
Bring back to a simmer and continue simmering, without stirring, until the syrup reaches the soft ball stage, which is typically from 215 degrees – 235 degrees. Word of advice – if you break down and start stirring while it is simmering, please note that your syrup has a MUCH higher probability of crystallizing, as my first batch did last year. I no longer stir – AT ALL – I have not had that problem again, and the resulting syrup is perfectly mixed by the simple action of the long simmering.
Allow the syrup to cool somewhat before pouring into hot, sterilized canning jars. Cover and tighten the lids, then process in a hot water bath for at least fifteen minutes, label and enjoy! I like to turn my jars upside-down on several layers of towel when I take them out of the hot water bath, as shown in the photo. I have had much better luck with all the jars sealing properly since I started doing so.
I use exclusively non-GMO cane sugar, certified organic when I can find it, as there is no genetically engineered sugar cane on the market in the U.S. – so far. Otherwise, you can pretty much guarantee that, unless your sugar says 100% cane sugar, it is made from genetically engineered beets. No thanks.
If all this sounds like too much trouble, you can contact me via email for prices and availability, as I started my own cottage industry making hickory syrup last year. I sell most of mine locally, through the local farmer’s markets, but I also sell some online. As I’ve said in an earlier post, I’m most a fly by the seat of my pants sort of cook, so while the first batch was according to the above instructions, I’ve continued to tweak and improve it ever since.
I also make a hickory nut syrup that is out of this world and entirely different from the hickory bark syrup. This process was originally passed to the white settlers from the indigenous Cherokee tribe, among others. As it is made from the nut meats and shells, rather than the bark, it is in much shorter supply, and typically available only in the fall and winter.