If you’re lucky, like me, and live near a forest full of shagbark hickory trees, it’s easy to make this wonderful, velvety, smoky, sweet syrup – a gift from the forest.
Made from the bark of the distinctive and easily identifiable shagbark hickory tree, the syrup does not take any special equipment. All you need is a shagbark hickory tree, time, and the willingness to do a bit of work.
If you’re any doubt about whether or not you’ve located a shagbark hickory tree – this Ontario Ministry of Environment and Energy page should help.
You do not need much bark in order to make a batch of syrup. All the syrup pictured above was made with one cloth grocery bag of bark. I recommend using a cloth bag to gather the bark because the shaggy bark will tear straight through a plastic bag.
Begin by collecting the fallen bark around the base of a shagbark hickory tree or two. If you need more, remove only the very loosest bark: the strips that are already peeling and preparing to fall off the tree. Do not tug or cut the bark off as this will injure the tree.
Once you’ve collected your bark, each piece must be scrubbed down to clean off mold, insects, and lichen. The next step is to bake the bark, then simmer, and finally, strain, add sugar and boil the mixture down to a syrup.
The result is a tantalizing velvety, smoky, sweet syrup that can be used anywhere you might use maple syrup (or other syrups): in tea or coffee, poured over ice cream, served with pancakes, or mixed into cocktails, such as a Shagbark Manhatten (shagbark hickory syrup and rye whiskey on the rocks).
To Make Shagbark Hickory Syrup
What you will need:
- any quantity of hickory bark
- organic cane sugar (exact quantity will be determined by how much liquid you end up with)
- a good stiff vegetable cleaning brush
- a large pot and a large heatproof bowl (or two large pots)
- a sieve
- cheesecloth or a sturdy paper towel for straining
- a digital instant-read thermometer or candy thermometer
- sterilized canning jars and lids
- Begin by scrubbing the bark with a good stiff vegetable brush. I did this in a plastic tub because the water gets to be very dirty and you might not want to let this down your drain and risk clogging your sink. Easier to take the muddy water outdoors and pour it onto the garden.
- Set the oven to 325°F (160°C) and spread the clean bark on baking sheets preferably in a single layer but stacked a little if necessary. Bake for about 20-30 minutes. (If the bark is more than a single layer – bake for 30 minutes). Your kitchen will start to fill with a delicious, sweet smokey hickory aroma.
- Remove the bark from the oven and let cool slightly. Break into sections about 3 to 8 inches long and pack the bark into a large pot. Add water until the bark is just covered. You will need an inch or two of space at the top of the pan – do not overfill.
- Bring the liquid to a boil and then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Continue cooking, pressing the bark down so that it remains submerged, and reduce the heat if the mixture resumes boiling. Cook for 30 minutes.
- Remove the pot from the heat and let stand for 10 minutes before straining the contents into a large bowl or another large pot. Set the bark aside to use in the garden or on a wood fire.
- Re-strain the liquid cup by cup (counting the cups as you go) back into the cooking pot using a strainer lined with cheesecloth or a paper towel to capture the fine sediment.
- Add one cup of sugar per cup of liquid. Bring this mixture to the boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Once the sugar is dissolved, you can turn the heat up slightly. Keep boiling, stirring regularly, until the syrup is slightly thickened. The syrup should reach a minimum temperature of 217.5°F and a maximum of 225°F. If the syrup is not thick enough for your taste but has reached the correct temperature range, you can continue to cook it down, but at a slightly lower heat so that the syrup does not end up crystallizing.
- Allow the syrup to cool slightly for a few moments before pouring into the sterilized canning jars and sealing.