Shagbark hickory syrup is a delicious bonus harvested from hickory trees. While they already produce incredibly tasty hickory nuts in the fall, you can also make hickory syrup for year-round harvest.
In fact, there are around 30 tree species that can be tapped for syrup (besides just sugar maples). When I started doing the research I learned that you can tap beech trees and black walnuts, but shagbark hickories are a bit different.
Shagbark hickory syrup isn’t made by tapping the trees like other tree syrups, it’s actually made from the bark. The bark is used to flavor a really unique syrup, which means you don’t need any specialized tree tapping equipment.
Shagbark hickory trees naturally shed their bark, and it peels off in plates as the tree grows. You can often find shed bark around the trunk of a shagbark just waiting for the harvest.
I’d been looking for shagbark hickory trees for years, and when I finally found a stand of more than 50 of them this year, it was just past the nut harvest. I could see squirrels packing in the last few kernels on the forest floor, but the trees had another gift to give…
Harvesting Bark from Shagbark Hickory Trees
A couple of things to note about harvesting shagbark hickory bark…
Be Gentle! Shagbarks are very slow-growing trees. They won’t produce nuts until they’re 40-80 years old, and at that point, their trunk may only be about 4 inches across. If you injure these trees, you’re leaving a mark that will last generations.
Harvest bark that’s already detached from the tree, by breaking off the hanging pieces. Don’t disturb the attachment point, just break the bark that’s already out there flapping in the wind.
It’s better for the tree, and it’s actually better for your shagbark syrup. The bark needs to be dried before it’s used anyway, and the hanging pieces are already partway there. It’s important to get the bark dried quickly, as wet bark will actually start to mold in storage if you’re not making syrup right away.
It doesn’t take all that much bark to make the syrup. Yields vary, but I made about 6 cups of syrup from 1 pound of bark (literally just a few pieces).
How to Make Shagbark Hickory Syrup
Once you’ve brought the hickory bark home, the next step is toasting. Toasting ensures that the bark is totally dried, as it may mold if you’re storing it for a while before making the syrup. Get to toasting it right away, even if you don’t want to make syrup yet.
Toasting also really enhances the flavor of the bark, and you’ll smell it as it’s cooking. The whole house will smell like vanilla, maple and toasted nuts.
Break the bark into manageable pieces, trying to increase their surface area as much as possible (but not pulverizing them). Think a couple of inches long, by 1-2 inches wide.
Next, bake the bark pieces for about 20 minutes at 350 degrees. The actual cooking time may vary a bit since bark pieces might be thicker, wetter or just bigger than the ones I used. Let your nose tell you when they’re done. The pieces should be really fragrant, and just ever so slightly darkened on the surface.
Once the bark is toasted, you can store it for later use or make the syrup immediately.
Place the toasted bark into a saucepan and fill the pan with enough water to just cover the bark. I used a small saucepan with 1/2 pound of bark, and it took about 4 cups of water to cover it completely.
Bring the pan to a low simmer, and slowly cook the bark for 30-45 minutes. Keep the heat low, as boiling it hard will make a bitter syrup.
At that point, strain and measure the hickory tea you’ve created. In my case, I started with 4 cups and was down to 2 cups at straining.
For every cup of strained hickory bark tea, add 1 cup of sugar. This one to one ratio will let you start at a simple syrup, which will allow the finished hickory syrup to come together pretty quickly.
Hickory Syrup Finish Temperature
There’s a bit of debate about the finish temperature for hickory syrup. Many sites will tell you to cook to 225 degrees F, but then those same sites give you all sorts of advice on how to deal with crystallization issues…
We’ve been making tree syrups for a long time, so I’ll add my two cents…
Maple syrup, which is mostly glucose, finishes at 219.5 degrees F at sea level. At higher elevations, it finishes at a lower temperature. Here on our homestead, at about 1000 feet above sea level, we finish our maple syrup at 217.5 (the temp drops by about 1 degree for every 500 ft in elevation rise).
Birch syrup, which is mostly fructose, finishes at 225 degrees (or 223 here at 1000 feet elevation).
I’m using pure cane sugar for my hickory syrup, so the finish temperature should be the same as maple syrup.
Ironically, the same sites that tell you 225 also tell you to add a bit of corn syrup (ie. fructose) to help prevent crystallization. I’m guessing that they’re just following some old instruction from someone at some point that actually made the syrup with corn syrup, and that same piece of information has just been perpetuated for a long time.
Thread stage for candy making is at 230 to 235, so if you’re cooking regular cane sugar to 225, you’re awfully close to making candy instead of syrup. No wonder it’s crystallizing.
I watched this syrup cook, and when it looked “done” to my syrup making eye, I checked it with the thermometer. Sure enough, it said 217. Pretty darn close to textbook.
Hickory Syrup Yield
The total yield is obviously going to vary based on your stove, the size of your bark pieces and how you cook it. Adding “enough water to cover the bark” isn’t exactly an exact measurement.
That said, I did a batch with 1/2 pound of bark pieces (weighed before drying/toasting). It took 4 cups of water to cover them. After simmering, I had 2 cups water. I added 2 cups sugar.
My total yield was exactly 3 cups.
From that, you can estimate a yield of roughly 6 cups of shagbark hickory syrup from ever pound of bark collected.
Storing Hickory Syrup
Hickory syrup, like maple syrup, will mold on the surface if left at room temperature in an unsealed container. Keep the open bottle that you’re actively using in the refrigerator, and can up the rest in mason jars.
The process for hickory syrup is the exact same as canning maple syrup for long term preservation, and it’s not really “canning” by a strict sense of the word. It’s not like making a jam with a water bath canner, it’s really simple.
Just pour the hot syrup into clean, dry jars leaving as little headspace as possible (about 1/4 inch). Seal the jars with 2 part canning lids and wait for them to suction shut.
How to Use Hickory Syrup
The hickory syrup can be used in all the same ways you use maple syrup. It tastes similar, but not the same. Hickory syrup has notes of vanilla and a bit of toasted nuttiness. Really, it’s quite different, and you’ve got to taste it to know.
Happy syrup making!