When staring at a heaping stack of pancakes or waffles, what do you reach for? Maybe you're a pure maple person, or maybe Mrs. Butterworth was like a member of your family (who you weirdly groped every morning). But is there truly even a difference between the major brands? We decided to find out and, to do so, enlisted the help of a bunch of saps to taste them all back-to-back. Actually, they're sap-enthusiasts.
The syrup contenders are the major brands (Mrs. Butterworth's, Aunt Jemima, Log Cabin, and Hungry Jack), along with a generic store brand (ShopRite), and an actual honest-to-goodness organic maple variety (Dutch Gold). Our tasters didn't know which one they were dipping their waffles into and, after tasting them all, ranked them from best to worst:
6. SHOPRITE PANCAKE SYRUP
General consensus: Our tasters thought ShopRite's generic brand was too bitter, artificial, and lacking in a certain je ne sais quoi -- except they sais exactly quoi: There was no distinct maple flavor here. Just plain sugar, and not even a lot of it. One of our volunteers even noted a hint of blueberry, which was decidedly odd and definitely not actually present.
Winning endorsement: "It’s welcoming. It’s like seeing an old friend at the airport.”
Scathing pan: "That has a real funky aftertaste. Wait -- it's not even an aftertaste. It's just a taste. A funkiness that hits you right away."
5. AUNT JEMIMA ORIGINAL SYRUP
General consensus: While it "dripped in an optimal way", Aunt Jemima's viscosity couldn't save it from a general mediocrity when it came to taste. An almost-cloying, unnatural sweetness marked its profile, as though trying to make up for the curmudgeonly antics of Uncle Jem.
Winning endorsement: "Not as balanced, but it’s not overwhelming."
Scathing pan: "Tastes like they combined Pixy Stix and Coca-Cola."
4. DUTCH GOLD ORGANIC PURE MAPLE SYRUP
General consensus: Oddly enough, the only actual natural maple syrup in the bunch was overly sugary to some of our tasters, while others noted a distinctly smoky, earthy flavor that they compared to bacon. A few were turned off by its consistency, which was consistently described as watery. The natural, almost herbal bitterness intrigued pretty much everyone.
Winning endorsement: "It’s like a pint of beer! It’s very agreeable to me."
Scathing pan: "It has a dark secret, but I don’t know what it is, and it won’t tell me."
3. HUNGRY JACK ORIGINAL SYRUP
General consensus: Hungry Jack was nostalgia-inducing for many of our volunteers, who described its taste as "sweet", "maple-y", and "Canadian" -- which is a rare instance where "Canadian" is a huge compliment. However, its consistency was on the runny side and, evidently and unfortunately for ol' Jack, cling is a big factor when choosing a pancake syrup.
Winning endorsement: "Nice, sweet, not too viscous -- that’s good stuff."
Scathing pan: "A little liquidy. Just makes me feel OK, and I’ve definitely felt better."
2. MRS. BUTTERWORTH'S ORIGINAL SYRUP
General consensus: True to her name, Mrs. Butterworth was the butteriest of the bunch, with a texture that was described as creamy and a flavor reminiscent of pure (maple-flavored) sugar with a hint of natural honey. Our tasters also noted that it coated the waffle really well and even got absorbed a bit by the time it hit their taste-buds.
Winning endorsement: "Actually tastes maple-y!"
Scathing pan: "Decidedly overly-sweet. I can feel my teeth rotting."
1. LOG CABIN ORIGINAL SYRUP
General consensus: Log Cabin had it all -- the look ("deep, dark"), the consistency ("full-bodied"), the smell ("true maple-y"), and the taste ("burnt sugar" and "maple" notes). In the end, though, it won out for being slightly more natural than the other generic syrups, due to the exclusion of high fructose corn syrup.
Winning endorsement: "It's like they actually tried to balance the sugar and the flavor and make it be good [sic]."
Scathing pan: "It’s kinda like a pot of sugar. It’s good though!” (Even the most scathing pan was not truly that scathing.)
As much as we may preach about being all for "natural" products, the actual maple product in this taste-test got buried in the middle, and many of our tasters were suspicious of its watery consistency and slightly bitter, smoky profile.
Turns out that the syrups inspired by -- but not derived from -- the maple tree fared both better and worse than the real thing, due to a combination of factors: viscosity (thicker is better), sweetness (there's a fine line between ideal and over-the-top), and overall flavor (buttery, less chemical notes won out).
When presented with real maple syrup, would you choose it over a bottle of "pancake" syrup? Perhaps, perhaps not. Our tasters didn't -- but then again, there's a reason why people started making the artificial stuff in the first place.