I’m fascinated with the idea of making tree syrups, but tapping multiple maples, and boiling vast quantities of sap for hours is a little daunting. Plus, I don’t live somewhere I can tap a lot of trees. So I was thrilled to learn I could make a quicker, easier syrup by boiling the bark of the shagbark hickory tree (Carya ovata). It’s easy to harvest bark without damaging the tree, and the syrup is light, sweet, and has a distinctive smoky flavor. You will not be surprised to learn it also makes an excellent cocktail ingredient.
What You’ll Need to Make Shagbark Hickory Syrup
- 1 pound shagbark hickory bark pieces
The bark is the most distinctive feature of the shagbark hickory (hence its name). Large pieces of thick bark turn up at the ends, giving the tree trunk a shaggy look. To harvest bark for this recipe, break off pieces four to six inches long, from the loose, shaggy ends of the bark strips. Don’t peel off any bark that is firmly attached to the trunk of the tree. This may open up wounds that invite insect, fungal, or bacterial predation.
What You’ll Do to Make Shagbark Hickory Syrup
Preheat your oven to 350F.
Rinse off the bark to get rid of any bugs and spider webs. It’s ok to scrub with a sponge or scouring pad, but don’t use soap. Discard any pieces with lichen growing on them. Lichen has its own taste, and it’s neither smoky nor sweet. (While many lichens are edible, they are highly acidic and require special preparation to make them palatable.)
Spread the bark pieces on a cookie sheet and roast them for 20-25 minutes. They should smell lightly smoky and spicy when you take them out of the oven.
Transfer the bark pieces to a large pot and add enough water to cover. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
Strain the liquid and throw away the bark, thanking it for its service. Measure the liquid and return it to the pot. Add an equal volume of sugar, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to a low boil/high simmer, and keep it on the heat, whisking regularly to avoid scorching.
Continue to cook the liquid until it’s reduced by 25-30%, then remove the liquid from the heat and let it cool.
Pour the syrup into bottles or canning jars. For long term storage, process canning jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Syrup will last in the refrigerator, unprocessed, for several months.
If your syrup crystallizes, pour it back into the pan, reheat, and stir to dissolve. Don’t worry, the syrup will still taste fine. Even maple syrup crystallizes when it’s been in the refrigerator for a while.
To prevent crystallization in the first place, you can substitute corn syrup for some of the sugar. Corn syrup is an invert sugar, which means it prevents crystals from forming. Try substituting corn syrup for 25% of your sugar to avoid crystallization. Or, add a dash of cream of tartar or citric acid to your syrup, to prevent crystals from forming.
Shagbark hickory syrup can be used in place of maple syrup on pancakes or waffles. Use it to flavor sorbets or ice cream. It’s also tasty swirled into yogurt, in a glaze for chicken, pork, or salmon, or as a cocktail ingredient. Try mixing it with equal parts sumac infused rum for a special treat.
Rita Bates says
I have never seen a shagbark hickory tree. Where do they grow?
Mostly in the eastern US, some in the midwest. We’re lucky to have them nearby in PA. The USDA shows them growing in MI.
The best! You can also simmer the toasted bark in water and then enjoy the infusion lightly sweetened as a warm tea.
Laura, your shagbark hickory syrup cocktails are some of my favorites! If you’ve published them, I’d love to link to them.
Katie Goin says
Hi Ellen ! Katie from Wisconsin:)
I agree about maple syrup ….it’s fun but a lot of work and storing sap until you get a big enough batch is not easy . I did not know you could make syrup from shagbark hickory! I wish they grew in northern Wisconsin. When I make a trip to southern Wisconsin, I will be on the look out ! I’m assuming you can harvest the bark year around which makes the shagbark hickory an awesome tree. I just may purchase some bark from Etsy and make some syrup.
Thank Ellen ! Love your podcast and all of your foraging recipes!
Hi Katie! I’d love to make maple syrup some day…it’s on my bucket list. We don’t have shagbarks in NM either, but I manage to collect some bark whenever I’m in PA.
Catie Cox says
I can attest that making maple syrup is a fair amount of work and a bit of a pain. We made it one year at a friend’s house with a “cheesehead” evaporator set-up (i.e. home-made welded angle iron frame with steam table pans and a cinder block firebox). The syrup had a wonderful slightly smokey flavor as we evaporated over a wood fire and ladled the sap from pan to pan. It took about 8 hours to boil 5-6 buckets of sap down to about a half gallon of “brown gold” which I then finished off and canned in the kitchen at home. It was the best syrup I’ve ever tasted in my whole 35 years of existence. Maple syrup-ing is not for the faint of heart or stamina. However, if the day isn’t too cold out an excellent time can be had with cocktails and friends around the fire! As a side note, you can drink the maple sap before you boil it down. It’s lightly sweet, has a slight maple flavor, and is very refreshing! Would probably make a good base for a cocktail as well. 😉
Hi Catie, I hope I Have the chance to make maple syrup some day. I Know it’s a lot of work, as you describe, but still, it’s on my bucket list. (no pun intended)
Sarah Flanagan says
I live in NH and luckily have my own sugar maple trees to tap for syrup. Yes, it is a lot of work, but boy the final product is worth it! We also have shagbark hickory trees here, so I can’t wait to harvest the shagback bark and give your recipe a try. BTW, you can tap many types of hardwood trees and make many syrups of varying flavors. Birch syrup tastes very complex, like balsamic vinegar, but sweeter and thicker. Don’t be put off if you don’t have sugar maples– try other trees. In Korea, they do not make syrup from their maple trees (this is something we learned from the native Americans). Instead they drink the maple sap water as is and use in varying recipes. Maple sap water is Korea is known as ‘bone water’ because of all the natural nutrients that the sap water contains– lots of calcium, magnesium, and potassium, along with other trace elements naturally found in the soil water surrounding the trees. Syrups from tapped trees are very nutritious and nothing like corn syrup, which in my opinion should be banned from food products, but that is a story for another day.
Sarah, I’m from Manchester! Where are you located? I love birch syrup, too, and I’ve also drunk maple water. Someday, I hope I’ll get to try tapping a tree and making syrup.
Great article I am going to try this but I would not use corn syrup unless it was organic. I would not want to chance the BT Toxin or glyphosate residues being in the syrup.