It takes months of research, testing and retesting, and writing and rewriting to develop a Cook’s Illustrated testings and tastings story. All of that hard work is then distilled into a one- to two-page magazine piece, every last detail put precisely in its place. This online interview series with the cooks and editors offers a firsthand, behind-the-scenes look at the testings and tastings development process in the test kitchen.
I caught up with testings and tastings editor Lauren Savoie to talk about the research she conducted—and the places she traveled to—for her story on pure maple syrup.
Terrence Doyle: Were you a maple syrup fanatic before working on this piece?
Lauren Savoie: Definitely not. I’m sort of ashamed to admit it, but I never really liked maple syrup all that much. Part of that is because it took me a long time to realize that there’s a difference between pancake syrup and pure maple syrup. At home in New Jersey, if you ordered a stack of pancakes at a diner, you’d get a packet of maple syrup that was really just corn syrup with some caramel coloring. For most of my life that was my idea of maple syrup.
TD: What about now?
LS: Well, when I moved to New England it was clear that equating pancake syrup with pure maple syrup is a mistake you only make once. New Englanders take their maple syrup very seriously. I think the first time I tasted real maple syrup was at a sugar shack in Vermont when I was about 20 years old. I remember thinking, “Hey, this stuff is pretty good!” These days, I still prefer my pancakes and waffles plain, but I keep maple syrup on hand for cooking—it adds a really nice sweetness to sauces, glazes, and baked goods. And, of course, my coworkers got me hooked on switchel—a concoction of maple syrup, apple cider vinegar, and water—which we consume by the gallon when filming Cook’s Country TV in Vermont.
TD: How did you approach this piece?
LS: I initially approached this story the same way we always do with tastings—we gather a bunch of brands, hold a blind tasting, and see where the chips fall. But after three tastings, a concrete winner and loser still hadn’t presented itself. All the syrups were scoring very similarly with tasters, which was odd because there were concrete color and flavor differences. I didn’t want to give up and say, “Well, we just like everything.” I wanted to know why these syrups were stumping our tasters.
TD: How did you go about doing that?
LS: It just so happened that all this was taking place at the tail end of winter, right on the heels of sugaring season. I knew Chris Kimball had a small sugar farm up in Vermont—he’s occasionally brought in bottles of syrup for the staff here—so I half jokingly mentioned to Lisa McManus the possibility of taking a trip to watch the process up at his property. Seconds later, Lisa was drafting an email to Chris, and we were swiftly extended an invitation to watch the sugaring operation as soon as the sap started flowing.
TD: It’s a bit of a finicky process, right?
LS: Yes, and the next few weeks were a waiting game. The sap only runs when freezing nights are followed by warm days, so every week I’d bug Nate, the head sugarmaker at Two Pigs Farm, for a weather report. Then one morning in April we got an email from Chris: The sap was running and it was time to go to Vermont. I quickly assembled a team of editors and booked it to Vermont.
TD: What struck you most about visiting the farm?
LS: While I already had an idea of how all this worked from my research, watching it in action really made something click; here we were on a mountain covered from top to bottom in maple trees, but those trees only produce enough sap for a couple thousand bottles of syrup each year. I started to wonder what a major, nationally available syrup operation would look like. The trees would have to stretch for miles, the farm would have to employ thousands of people to tap and maintain the lines, and they’d have to be capable of boiling thousands of gallons of syrup in a single day. It didn’t seem feasible, and that’s when I realized it’s not.
I asked Nate what one of those big operations looks like. He told me that, while they do have their own farms, the bulk of their syrup is purchased from other producers and then blended together. Until we went to Vermont, it never dawned on me that this might be the case, but after talking to numerous experts and manufacturers, I learned it’s actually pretty common knowledge in syrup-producing states that supermarket syrup is blended.
While it sounds like big business, it’s actually not; these packagers buy from small scale sugarmakers all over the state and region. Instead of competing, they pool their resources. It’s actually a very clever way of sustaining a local industry.
TD: What does that mean for the consumer?
LS: For the consumer, this means that most syrups will taste the same because they’ve effectively had the nuances blended out of them. It also means that the syrup can taste different from bottle to bottle. I’d say that as long as you’re buying pure maple syrup, it doesn’t matter which brand you buy—you’re going to get a good product no matter what, so stick with what’s cheapest.