The Science of Maple Butter

Disclamer: In this article we talk about sciency things like supersaturation , microscopic formations 🔬 and thermal energy 🔥❄️. You’ve been warned 😉.

It’s quite amazing what is possible with just Maple Syrup. A single ingredient that can be transformed into so many things and used in so many ways. Undoubtedly, one of the most iconic maple treats, beyond maple syrup itself of course, must be maple taffy on snow. To make taffy you don’t actually need snow. The snow just makes it fun. All you need to do is take maple syrup, boil more water out of it, and then cool it down really fast.

The most fascinating thing happens when you take a bowl of taffy and stir it.  Almost like churning cream to make butter.  As you’d expect it starts out super thick and sticky.  Dipping a spoon in it would pull out an endless string like biting into a pizza where the cheese stretches forever.  Over time, as you’re churning and churning, the taffy starts to turn into something very different. The color turns from a transparent dark amber to a light golden cream. Shortly after churning is complete it sets into what looks like a hard lump.  This is the ✨magical✨ part: running a knife over the surface peels a layer off and it spreads like silky smooth butter (hence the name Maple Butter).

It sure sounds like a simple process but there are so many places where things can go wrong.  The temperature the maple syrup is boiled to, the cooling down process,  just bumping the pan while it’s cooling can lead to an unfortunate end result.  Over the last few months (summer months, of course 🌞 **foreshadowing**) we have had a real hard time making butter that we were happy with. 

We spent a lot of time analyzing every step of the production process and trying many different batches of syrup — yes, even the day the maple sap was collected can impact the final product.

So, bringing it back to the basics I had to think about what was actually going on in the bowl.  Taffy is a supersaturated solution.  This means there is more sugar in the liquid than can be sustainably dissolved.  Left to its own accord, the sugar will naturally turn into giant crystals (like those candies that look like gem stones on a stick).  If we churn the taffy at the right point before the giant crystals form, the crystals become microscopic.  If you could remove all these tiny crystals what you’d be left with is pure maple syrup.  This is because syrup is most stable at 66% sugar.  Essentially, maple butter is maple syrup with millions of microscopic maple sugar crystals dispersed throughout.  Now stay with me,  this is all going to make sense shortly. We warned you about the science…

How does this knowledge help our problem solving process?  Well, what is really fascinating about a supersaturated solutions is that as the temperature drops, the saturation level increases.  This means the cooler we make our taffy, the more sugar has to come out to bring our liquid back to “Maple Syrup”.  Another thing about cooler taffy is that it’s much harder to churn, meaning we are putting more energy into the liquid.  So the last thing we tried was to test the temperature that the taffy was being cooled to. This was our golden ticket.  By cooling the taffy to a lower temperature, the crystals formed faster during churning. This created a thicker consistency and prevented the crystals from getting too big — finally, we achieved a smoother end result.

Why did this happen? Well our best guess is from warmer weather during the summer.  The taffy took much longer to cool and at that time we were only timing 🕐 the cooling process — a shortcut of sorts.  An hour and a half in an ice bath was enough time when the kitchen was 20°C in the winter, but not in the 30°C in the summer.   That hot weather caused our cooled taffy to be out by a mere 6°C and that made all the difference.  I have to say I’m thankful we figured this out before the cooler fall weather or it would have remained a mystery!

So when you next try our Maple Butter you can think about all that science happening in that little jar! Or not…maybe just enjoy.