As a chef, I can assure you that the use of animal fat as a defoaming agent is no longer a common practice in maple syrup production. In virtually all cases, the role formerly filled by animal fat is now either unnecessary, or it is filled by either a specially manufactured defoaming agent or a small amount of vegetable oil.
The defoaming agent, whichever kind is used, is intended to prevent the syrup from foaming up, spilling over the side of the cooking vessel, and potentially causing a fire. Maple syrup production begins with collecting maple sap. The sap is almost entirely composed of water, and it is sweet, but very diluted. The sap is poured into large vessels, then boiled for an extended period of time. As it boils, the water evaporates, leaving behind the sugar and other compounds that contribute to the flavor of the finished product. The sugar caramelizes, enhancing the flavor and giving the syrup its distinctive color.
However, during the cooking process, the sugar begins to foam. If this foam spills over the top of the vessel and runs down the side, it could reach the heat source and catch on fire. Is this were to happen, the flames would quickly rise up the side of the vessel and set fire to the entire batch of syrup. The reasons why this would be very, very bad should be obvious.
But the largest producers of maple syrup don't need to use any defoaming agents, because the cooking vessels are enormous and totally contained, so there is no possibility of spillage. I'm not sure how a contained (i.e., sealed) vessel can provide venting to allow the water to boil off, but apparently it works.
Throughout the process, excess foam may be skimmed off the surface of the boiling sap and discarded. Many types of materials, such as butter or vegetable oil, have been used to reduce foaming. However, a commercial defoaming agent available in small containers from maple equipment dealers is recommended. The defoamer should be fresh, and only a drop or two is needed. When used in small quantities, defoamers will evaporate without a noticeable trace in the syrup.
- Cornell University
If the label says "100% pure maple syrup", the only ingredients are maple sap and possibly a touch of defoaming agent or vegetable oil.
I called my home town’s kosher hotline and asked, “Does maple syrup need a hechsher (kosher certification)?”
“It’s not absolutely necessary, but it’s better if it does,” was the answer I received from the hotline helper.
I was not satisfied with this answer, because I know that syrup producers add a small amount of fat to the boiling sap, which prevents it from boiling over. Could they possibly use lard? Vegetable oil? Cream? Butter? And does the butter make it milchig? Chalav stam? Is the amount of fat so minute that it is considered to be batul ba’shishim, the halacha that states that if an ingredient is 1/60th or less of the total ingredients, it is null and void and is considered to “not exist” in the list of ingredients? I know the 1/60th rule works in accidental cases (let’s say a drop of milk dripped into a huge pot of chicken soup – the soup would still be kosher). But that’s in accidental cases – not l’hatchila (planning the 1/60th to begin with, on purpose).
I asked to speak with the rabbi in charge.
He told me that butter can be used without a hechsher only if it is made from 100% cream – that certain chemical additives or dyes may not be kosher and so butter requires a hechsher otherwise. But as to the rest – he excused himself and admitted that he simply didn’t know much about the process, and mirthfully added that he was appointing me as his “delegate” to check out maple syrup production first hand, and report my findings.
I started making a few calls to the heimish syrup producers (though truthfully, I doubt there is any sugar producer in Maine who has heard of the word “heimish”). It turns out that very few people use lard as an anti-foaming agent. One fellow uses butter, but he couldn’t tell me which brand of butter. Another guy told me he uses only organic butter, but he didn’t know for sure if it was free of additives. The last place I contacted was most interesting, though until I get there and try it for myself, I can’t tell you if it is the most tasty.
Balsam Ridge started, as most of these places do, as a hobby for its husband-and-wife team. They started by tapping only a few trees, and boiling whatever they got in a large metal pot in their wood shed, producing enough for one or two jugs of syrup for themselves. They started giving away small vials to their friends, whose enthusiasm led them to increase production. They bought a big wood-fired evaporator and started cranking out enough syrup so that they could sell a few jugs to passersby. The downside was that the larger evaporator took hours and hours to boil the sap, and it’s not like you can walk away from a giant vat of boiling syrup. The wood fire needed constant tending and stoking. The syrup had to be constantly supervised so that it wouldn’t boil over, and a small amount of fat was added to prevent this – – until it got to just the right point (7 degrees above the boiling point of water) and the right thickness and consistency. It then needed to be immediately filtered and bottled in sterilized containers. Many nights they would finish past midnight and they were just plain exhausted.
So a couple of years ago, they bought a giant evaporator that is oil-fired, and can boil 50 gallons of sap an hour. No more midnight sap boils for them! Because the 2′ x 8′ evaporator is so large, and completely enclosed, there is little fear of the sap boiling over; they no longer add any fat or anti-foaming agent to the syrup. So while they don’t have kosher certification, this is one example of a syrup product that is not only kosher, but pareve and truly pure syrup. But how does all this automation and modernization affect the taste? Hopefully your Faithful Reporter will let you know after Maine Maple Syrup Sunday!
P.S. I also submitted a query to the OU’s “Webbe Rebbe” online, and got a reply from Rabbi Gold, who I spoke with on the phone to discuss syrup production. He says there are some (including the Nodah BYehuda) that allow for leniency in regards to batul ba’shishim l’hatchila, so it could be that all syrups, even those with questionable fats, could be considered not only kosher, but maybe even pareve. However, the OU’s official policy is to not give a hechsher on those using the 1/60th l’hatchila leniency.