Thursday, April 7, 2016

Happy Birch Days

The Bide-A-While birch syrup family portrait.

It may very well be that we have reached peak birch here at Bide-A-While.  The sap goes on, though sluggishly, with afternoon highs just scraping up into the mid-30s.  Yesterday I gathered “ice birch”—the sap in the bags and containers was half frozen, so I poured the liquid portion into my collection container and left the ice behind, thinking that the liquid sap was probably more concentrated in sugar.  It’s on the woodstove now, and getting right down there.

I’ve also been reading a good bit about birch syrup making, though sources are not abundant.  There are some commercial producers in Alaska, and there have been some official studies of best practices.  It’s all pretty interesting, and useful, since I’ve been proceeding on a trial and error basis, leaning toward the latter.  This is a good compendium of articles on birch.

Pour the sap into a cauldron and light a small fire....

I would have thought that Magnus Nilsson’s massive new tome, The Nordic Cook Book, would show some traditional or novel uses for birch syrup; instead, it has no mention of it, at all.  But in Nilsson’s Fäviken cookbook he does include a “recipe” for birch syrup, along with a couple of interesting observations.  One, he notes that part of the distinctive taste of birch syrup comes from the fact that not only the sugars, but also the trace minerals found in the sap are concentrated in the syrup making process—and since birch sap must be reduced twice, or more, as much as maple sap, that’s bound to have an impact.  I think it’s part of what contributes to the savory edge that birch syrup has, even while it is intensely sweet.  The other, technical note Nilsson makes is that birch syrup contains carboxylic acid, which gives it “outstanding freshness.”  You can’t miss that acidic edge in tasting birch syrup; I just didn’t know what the particular acid was called. 

Oddly, none of the recipes in the rest of the book includes birch syrup.  Nilsson says that he uses it as one would balsamic vinegar, and I’d been thinking along similar lines, wondering what birch syrup would taste like drizzled over vanilla ice cream, as reduced balsamic is sometimes used.

Well, I need wonder no longer.  I fixed up a little late breakfast snack of vanilla ice cream (nothing special, just Wisconsin favorite Cedar Crest) anointed with a couple teaspoons of birch syrup and then a few grains of coarse gray sea salt.  Oh, my.  Why didn’t I think of this sooner?  It was really superb, with elements both of a root beer float and a butterscotch sundae.  If you can get your hands on some birch syrup, this would be the perfect way to end an elegant dinner party.  Your guests will surely have tasted nothing like it.  This was actually my first foray into using birch syrup in a sweet/dessert preparation.  I’m eager for more explorations.

R to L:  2016 no-boil, 2016 stove-boiled, 2013 woodfired.  Amazing range of colors.

If you’re interested in making your own birch syrup, you should pay attention to just how big an impact the way you reduce the sap makes on the final product.  In my first attempts I had rather a lot of sap, and I started the reduction in my homemade evaporator (the legendary half-assed sap contraption).  It really boiled hard, and sap caramelized (not to say burned, though probably some did) on the sides of the pan as the sap reduced, and this caramel got washed back into the sap, adding color and a variety of flavors.  As a result, that syrup was molasses-dark and very strong in flavor.  One of the articles I found online cautioned against making birch syrup this way, saying it would come out with a scorched flavor.  But I don’t think my dark syrup tastes bad or scorched.  It is very, very different from the lighter syrups I’m making this year, but it has its uses, too.

This year, with moderate sap flow and thus manageable amounts of sap to deal with, I’ve done all the reduction inside, first on the woodstove, then on the range, as previously mentioned.  And then with a few gallons I did in entirely on the woodstove, so that it never boiled at all, just slowly, slowly reduced as the water evaporated from the sap.  You can see what a difference that makes in the color of the final syrup.  The taste, as well, is mellower, but it still has that fresh acidity and good complexity.

Three 2016 batches.  I should start a paint line of birch syrup hues....

Fun stuff!  I feel like a bit of a pioneer in upper Midwest small batch birch syrup making.  If anyone else out there has tried his or her hand at this, I’d love to here about your experiences.  I will keep the home fires burning in the ever busy woodstove, and carry on with kitchen explorations, as well.  If you have any thoughts about how to deploy birch syrup in cooking, I love to hear those, as well.

Text and photos copyright 2016 by Brett Laidlaw

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