(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 18, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may nto be able to respond to your questions.)
You're probably thinking hickory syrup is analogous to maple syrup: tree sap collected and boiled to concentrate the sweetness. But hickory syrup is made in an entirely different fashion, and its flavor is said to be in a whole different league from "simple" maple syrup. Fans of this traditional American concoction, and there are now many, claim it has an incredible, unique taste. Food writer Ronni Lundy first sampled hickory syrup in 2001 and told readers of Gourmet Magazine that the flavor is "sharp and buttery", slightly smoky, and in the right setting, even flowery.
The average, non-"foodie" reader (and I include myself in that group) has never heard of hickory syrup. Don't feel left out; the existence of this substance, and even the recipe for its creation, seemed to have eluded almost the whole of 20th century civilization until 1991. That's when a lucky meeting between an Indiana country gentleman and some recently transplanted entrepreneurs brought hickory syrup into commercial production. Thanks to Hickoryworks Inc., hickory syrup is now just an Internet server and a credit card away. The Hickoryworks "crew" (husband and wife) brews up about a thousand gallons of the artisanal product each year.
Hickory syrup created the Hickoryworks way is made from the loose bark that peels from the shagbark hickory tree. A video on the company's home page shows bark being collected, washed, boiled and sweetened in the syrup making process. However, Gordon Jones of Hickoryworks prudently keeps certain details of the process a secret. Wouldn't you, if you knew how to turn tree bark waste into a sixty dollar (or more) per gallon commodity?
Ironically, while a commercial source of hickory syrup now exists, the product itself remains hard to come by. So many creative chefs, both professional and amateur, are devotees of hickory syrup that it is once again elusive; Hickoryworks website states at this writing that new orders are not being accepted due to high demand. What is the curious consumer to do?
Can you make your own, as self reliant Native Americans and 19th century Midwesterners used to?
Got hickory trees? Several species are quite common across eastern North America. Perhaps with some guidance, you can make your own hickory syrup. After my research, I would technically describe hickory syrup as "a sweetened extract of flavor derived by boiling something, other than sap, from a hickory tree". I have seen evidence that the Hickoryworks folks are not the only ones in the world actually making hickory syrup, though they are the only commercial vendor that I found. If you visit the Hickoryworks site and look at their prices, I think you'll agree that home-brewing of hickory syrup is worth a try. And lucky for both of us, I had my own chance encounter with a hickory syrup crafter.
Ah, the Dave's Garden community, font of garden wisdom and diverse information.
When the editor suggested this topic (the elusive hickory syrup) I recalled having seen some mention of the syrup while browsing in Dave's Gardens forums. In short order, I relocated the posts that I remembered. A DG member had said that hickory syrup was easily made using cracked shells of various hickory nuts, as well as by boiling shed hickory bark. He was kind enough to email me a copy of his writing on the subject of hickory syrup making.
Self-described hickory "nut" Dr. Lucky Pittman tells about his experience with homemade hickory syrup in a paper submitted to the Northern Nut Growers Association newsletter. With his permission, I present the following instructions for making your own hickory syrup from bark or nutshells.
a large pot full of cracked shell and husk, or cracked whole nuts from shagbark or mockernut hickory, or of exfoliating bark scraps collected from shagbark, shellbark or pignut hickory trees.
Wash and drain the nuts, nutshells or bark pieces to remove loose dirt. Put the bark or shell into a large pot and cover with water. Boil the mixture all day. (Makes the house smell good!) Strain out the solids and measure the liquid. Return the now brown, aromatic hickory "liquor" to the pot and add sugar in a proportion of one and a half times the amount of sugar as you have of liquid, for example four cups of liquid needs six cups of sugar. Boil this for thirty minutes. Pour the syrup into canning jars and seal them. (Not specified, but I would suggest you may want to store in the refrigerator) You may adjust the amount of sugar a bit but too much sugar will simply crystallize in the jar.
That sounds simple enough. I will give certainly give the Hickoryworks folks due credit; I'm sure they've been diligent in standardizing their recipe to turn out a consistently high-quality product. A video on their home page will give you a little more insight into the technical aspects, such as Brix testing, of their process. Between hints from Hickoryworks, and the experience shared by Dr. Pittman, I think we have the makings of some fun experiments in hickory home brewing to warm up the rest of autumn. Good luck, and let me know how it turns out. I'm off to identify some local hickories.
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Thanks to Dr. Lucky Pittman for generously sharing his knowledge. Thanks to DG Uber melody for the thumbnail photo.
Need help identifying your hickories? Shagbark hickory has a distinctive, crazily shaggy outer bark. Other hickories may be difficult to pin down; the Virginia Department of Forestry states that wild hickories hybridize easily, making identification tricky.
Click these links to read about certain hickories; each source also has entries for other species.