The Hickory is a characteristically American tree, an irreplaceable member of the great deciduous forests of our continent. It is most known to those with only a casual interest in native trees as the genus which contains the Pecan (Carya illinoinensis), but there are a number of species of Hickory tree which are found, not commonly, but regularly in the woodlands of the Eastern half of the US. The mature stage of eastern hardwood forests is commonly referred to as the “oak-hickory forest,” underscoring the importance of this native tree.
Wild food gatherers will of course be familiar with the Hickory in the form of its edible nutmeats, gathered in the autumn as the nuts drop in their (usually) smooth green and segmented outer shells. While all hickory nuts are technically edible, not all species conform to what we would consider palatable. Within that window of taste, there are also variances from tree to tree. One of the most widely distributed and appreciated for both beauty and flavor is the Shagbark Hickory, Carya ovata.
I quite like maple syrup. I don’t wish to demean it in any way. But, to me, hickory syrup tastes better, and is far more interesting culinarily. Those who find maple syrup good but somewhat cloying may agree with me. Hickory syrup has an incomparable smoky, woodsy flavor that is a more complex than maple syrup, something which to my tastes makes it more useful for both sweet and savory recipes. Maple syrup is delicious, but hickory syrup is adventurous. The only flaw that I see is that the manufacture of hickory syrup relies on an outside product to sweeten it, in most cases cane sugar, which is of course an industrialized, tropical plant and carries with it a cost in terms of ecological impact. In its defense I will say that making hickory syrup is one of the best ways to use sugar, a product I generally avoid. And while the amount required is no more or less than one would use to make a simple syrup, the product is one that carries a huge amount of flavor in even small doses, especially when used in cooking and baked goods. Maple syrup is also quite expensive in terms of money if one buys it, and time if one makes it. Making hickory syrup is quick, simple and costs nothing more than the price of whatever amount of sugar one uses.
To produce hickory syrup, one first needs to locate a shagbark hickory tree. The shagbark is quite distinctive, having naturally exfoliated bark which hangs “shaggily” off the tree in large, easy to remove pieces (pictured above). This bark can be collected in any season, but I usually gather it in winter when other wild food options are reduced. First, I scout around the base of the trees I find to see if any strips have fallen to the ground. There is no direct harm done to the tree by removing its bark, but one does run the risk of exposing the inner bark to attack from insects (another reason to collect in winter). It also reduces the natural beauty of the tree, so I try always to take only a few strips from each tree and minimize the impact both ecologically and visually. It does not require a great quantity of bark to make a rich syrup, so I would recommend starting with just a few ounces and seeing how well you like it.
To prepare the syrup, you will want first to toast the bark in a low oven. This works on the same principle as dry-roasting spices before using them in a curry. The heat brings out flavors and aromas in the bark which would be less intense if the bark were not treated in this way. I have made hickory syrup without toasting it first, and it is perfectly serviceable, but not as deep in flavor. To toast the bark, place on a baking sheet in a low (under 200°) oven for 1-2 hours or a slightly hotter one (325°) for a half-hour or so. When I use the higher heat method I turn the bark halfway through. I’m not entirely sure that this is necessary, I am likely just being fussy.
Once the bark is toasted, allow it to cool and then prepare a tea from it. I generally use a ratio of 4-5 ounces of dry bark to 6 cups of water. Bring close to a boil, then cut the heat and allow the bark and water to simmer until the amount of water (now dark and flavorful) has been reduced to a third of its original amount. The amount of time this takes will vary greatly, so the best way to proceed is simply by measuring, reducing, and measuring again until one gets the liquid down to a third. I have prepared this tea with amounts as small as 2 oz of bark and as high as 1.5 lbs and found the general ratios to be effective in both small and large recipes. To make a practical, easily bottle-able amount the most usual proportion that I prepare is 8-10 oz. of bark to 12 cups of water, reduced down to 4 cups of tea. Avoid boiling, which will result in bitterness. It is perfectly acceptable (and perhaps beneficial) to allow the mixture to sit until cool, for several hours, or even overnight before straining the bark. When done, do not discard the strained bark. Instead, save it and use for additional flavor when grilling or smoking foods with hardwoods.
Next, you will want to add sugar. I prefer to use a proportion of 1 : 1 to make the basic hickory syrup, and then reduce it if I want a more concentrated and thick product (I usually refer to this as hickory glaze).
To make a hickory simple syrup, rather than a glaze, all one has to do is combine the sugar and tea over a low heat until the sugar dissolves. It is best to avoid stirring this mixture as it begins to get warm, as this will cause crystallization. This syrup will not be as thick as maple syrup, but is perfectly fine for most applications and is actually much better if you are going to add hickory syrup to drinks or use it in a recipe that will be cooked for any length of time.
Reducing the syrup to a glaze is more useful if it will be used to make salad dressings, added to dishes as a finishing touch, or poured over pancakes like maple syrup. I tend to reduce the syrup by anywhere from a quarter to a third, so going from a cup of hickory syrup to 2/3-3/4 cup of hickory glaze. I have found that reducing it much further results in a product that solidifies at room temperature. There is nothing much wrong with this thick syrup, it just requires heating in a water bath to become fluid again.
As to the uses of either hickory syrup or glaze, the only limit is one’s imagination. Of course it works wonderfully as a substitute for maple syrup, but don’t let your experimentation end there. Hickory syrup makes an amazing addition to various mixed drinks and cocktails, alcoholic or not, and is an ideal sweetener for lemonade or sumac-ade, adding its characteristic smoky flavor to the mix. It’s fantastic when substituted for honey or maple syrup in baked goods, makes a great base for vinaigrettes and yogurt dressings, and is inspiring drizzled on homemade ice creams and frozen yogurts. The combination of smokiness and sweetness means it pairs excellently with meats, especially pork sausages, bacon, and fried chicken. My favorite way to use it may be as a finishing touch to bitter greens, of which I eat quite a lot. And it almost goes without saying that it is an awesome pancake syrup.
It’s extraordinarily easy to identify shagbark hickory and make this syrup – there is an added bonus to collecting this bark in the winter, as well. Identifying hickory trees now means one can be there in the fall, when their nuts are available, for the shagbark hickory is one of the consummate wild foods, under appreciated in our area where they are so naturally abundant.