Shagbark hickory is a type of hickory tree native to eastern North America. It gets its name from the long, peeling strips of bark that give the trunk a shaggy appearance. Shagbark hickory is prized for its hard, dense wood, as well as for the sweet edible nuts it produces. The nuts have a very high oil content and a rich, distinctive flavor. This has led some people to wonder whether the sap from shagbark hickory trees could be used to produce maple-like syrup. In this article, we’ll explore the possibilities and challenges of making syrup from shagbark hickory sap.
Can you tap shagbark hickories for sap?
Yes, it is possible to tap into shagbark hickory trees to obtain sap. The process is similar to tapping maple trees: small holes are drilled into the trunks in early spring, and spouts or tubing are inserted to direct the flowing sap into containers. The sap runs when freezing nights are followed by warm sunny days, which create pressure differential inside the tree. This usually occurs for 4-6 weeks in late winter/early spring. Shagbark sap flow is later than maple sap flow. The sap is watery and clear, like maple sap. With the right weather conditions, a shagbark hickory tree can produce as much as 10 gallons of sap per season. So while lower yielding than maple trees, shagbarks can produce a decent sap flow.
What does shagbark hickory sap taste like?
Shagbark hickory sap is very sweet, perhaps even sweeter than maple sap. It has a sugar content of roughly 2-5%, compared to 2-3% for maple. So the sap is high in sucrose, glucose, and fructose that provide its sweet taste. The sap has hints of the flavor of the nuts, with slightly smoky, earthy, and woody notes. The raw sap is perfectly edible fresh from the tree. It can be consumed as a refreshing drink or boiled down into syrup without any processing needed. The high natural sugar content means the sap readily thickens into syrup with an amber color and rich, buttery, hickory taste.
Challenges of working with shagbark hickory sap
While the sap is usable, there are some challenges to using it for syrup production:
Lower sap yields
Shagbark hickories produce much less sap than maple trees, so it takes more effort and trees to gather usable quantities of sap. It’s been estimated you need 2-3x the number of shagbark taps compared to maple taps to get the same syrup output.
Shorter sap flow season
The sap flow season for shagbarks is only 4-6 weeks compared to 6-8 weeks for maple trees. This provides a much shorter window for sap collection.
Higher sugar content
The high sugar content of hickory sap means it cooks down faster into syrup. This can make the processes of evaporating water and controlling sugar concentrations tricky.
The cooked syrup has a robust, earthy, nutty flavor that some find overpowering. The flavor may be too strong for those who prefer a mild, sweet maple taste.
|Sap Sugar Content
|Sap Flow Season
|Sap Yield Per Tree
Producing hickory syrup requires larger evaporators to boil off water from the sap of numerous trees. Most hobbyists use maple syrup equipment which must be scaled up for hickory syrup making. Custom equipment would be ideal but costly.
Steps for Making Shagbark Hickory Syrup
Here is an overview of the basic process:
1. Tap the trees
Using a 7/16″ drill bit, bore tap holes into the shagbark hickory trees about 2-3 feet from the ground. Insert sap spouts or connect plastic tubing and attach a bucket or collection tank.
2. Collect the sap
Allow the sap to drip from the taps into buckets or tanks. Keep the sap cool during collection. Pour the accumulated sap into large storage containers kept cold.
3. Filter the sap
Pour the sap through cheesecloth, a paper coffee filter, or other filter to remove any debris or sediment.
4. Boil down the sap
Pour the filtered sap into a large evaporator pan or cooker. Boil the sap down over a fire or cooker, monitoring constantly. More sap will need to be added as water evaporates.
5. Check density and temperature
As the sap thickens, periodically check the density with a hydrometer and the temperature with a candy thermometer. Stop boiling when the liquid reaches 7.1° above the boiling point of water (219°F at sea level).
6. Filter and bottle the syrup
Filter the syrup again while hot through a paper filter or felt strainer to remove sugar sand. Pour the clear syrup into sterile bottles, seal, and refrigerate or freeze. Enjoy the homemade hickory syrup!
Flavor and Culinary Uses
Hickory syrup has a robust, woodsy flavor due to the higher concentrations of minerals and organic acids. It tastes like a bolder, intensified version of maple syrup. The flavor has hints of smoke, toasted nuts, and buttery caramel. Hickory syrup can substitute for maple syrup at a 1:1 ratio in recipes, but the flavor profile will be stronger. It pairs especially well with meats like ham, bacon, sausages, and poultry. The syrup can provide sweetness in barbeque sauces, marinades, and baked beans. It also makes a nice finishing syrup for hot cakes and waffles or drizzled over oatmeal or yogurt. Hickory syrup adds sweetness along with smoky, earthy notes to anything you would normally use maple syrup on.
Hickory syrup is high in many minerals and B vitamins compared to maple syrup. It has:
- Higher calcium content – 35mg per tablespoon vs. 12mg in maple
- More magnesium -10mg vs. 6mg per tablespoon
- More zinc – 0.4mg vs. 0.2mg per tablespoon
- Higher manganese – 0.06mg vs. 0.03mg per tablespoon
- More B vitamins including B1, B2, B5, and B6
However, hickory syrup has a higher calorie and carbohydrate content per tablespoon compared to maple syrup:
|Shagbark Hickory Syrup
So hickory syrup has a bit more calories and carbs for the same volume compared to maple syrup. But it provides higher levels of beneficial minerals and B vitamins.
While tapping shagbark hickories takes more effort than maple sugaring, it is possible to produce your own hickory syrup from the sap. The sap is high in sugar and the resulting syrup has a robust, woodsy flavor profile. Hickory syrup can be substituted for or used to complement maple syrup in recipes. And it provides more minerals like calcium, magnesium, and zinc compared to traditional maple syrup. With some patience and effort, you can make this uniquely flavored syrup from an American native tree.