Without getting into great technical detail (grades, percentage of light transmission, differing national and provincial classification systems), there are five different shades of maple syrup in Canada, and not all are easy to find. Here’s a rough guide:
Extra Light, Light: The lighter end of the maple syrup spectrum. The lighter the colour, the milder the maple flavour. Good for a light touch of maple sweetness without overpowering other tastes. Uses: Syrup for pancakes, waffles, French toast; baking where sweetness matters more than maple flavour; sweetening coffee or tea; adding a hint of sweetness to vinaigrettes.
Medium: The jack of all trades, all-purpose flour of maple syrups. Pick up a bottle of maple syrup at an average grocery store, and this is likely what you’re buying. Not perfect for everything, but still great for most applications. Uses: Like the light, it’s ideal on pancakes, waffles, crepes or French toast; glazing vegetables or meats; and that very Canadian winter tradition, the tire d’érable (boiled maple syrup spread in lines on fresh, clean snow, then rolled up on a popsicle stick as it cools).
Amber: Darker in colour and more assertive in flavour than medium. A maple-lover’s maple syrup, it’s sweet, complex and intense without being overwhelming. Uses: In sauces, on meats and fish (sparingly, so it doesn’t overpower), in pastries and ganache. You can also use it on pancakes if you want a much more pronounced maple flavour.
Dark: Hard to find and rarely if ever used as a table syrup. It has a deep caramel, molasses flavour that not everyone appreciates. A little bit goes a long way, which makes it popular with food producers. Look for it at organic and natural foods stores, but try a small quantity first before committing to a larger bottle. Uses: Baking, cooking and other places where the syrup is competing with other strong flavours.
What makes the syrups different? The colour and flavour are dependent on when the sap was harvested. Sap drawn earlier in the season typically produces syrup with lighter colour and flavour. As the maple season progresses, the flavour intensifies and the colour deepens.
In ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen recipes, use medium syrup unless otherwise noted. If you want a more intense maple flavour in the final dish, opt for amber. If you’d like a light, sweet touch of maple, light should do the trick.
If you’re interested in the technical side of maple syrup classifications, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has a page
dedicated to exactly this topic.