What’s the point of corn syrup?

…when there are so many other types of syrup available to us these days? So asks reader Ted. And Ted, it’s a good question (even though I sense it’s loaded). When corn syrup was first produced commercially the point was to create a less expensive — and more neutral-tasting — alternative to molasses. Around the year 1900 most people used syrups, not more expensive crystal sugar, as general-purpose sweeteners. People up north used maple syrup. The Midwest favored sorghum. The rest of the population used molasses. In those days it was common to see a bowl of syrup on the kitchen table next to the salt and pepper, not a sugar bowl.

The trouble with molasses (and maple syrup) was that it was a.) subject to price swings and b.) had a very distinctive taste. A corn-based syrup was a good deal cheaper and also more neutral on the tongue. Corn syrup had been in existence for just shy of a century before the The Corn Products Refining Company of New York and Chicago initiated their first major sales push in 1910. The company considered their product to be purer, more versatile and generally more wholesome than molasses and many consumers agreed.

By the 30’s corn syrup had cut heavily into molasseses sales. In 1938 the company made a play for the maple syrup market and came out with a maple version. Did it taste as good? No of course not, but for people who couldn’t afford the real thing it served as a very reasonably priced alternative. Today home cooks don’t have the same need for corn syrup as our forbears did, but it’s still a very handy thing from time to time, especially if you’re trying to prevent icings and candies from over-crystallizing. And it’s not bad for pecan pie, either.

So there’s your answer, reader Ted. Hope that satisfies, thanks for the question!

2 thoughts on “What’s the point of corn syrup?”

  1. Hi Joe, maybe a bit off-topic, but I live in Lithuania where you can’t really get either corn syrup or maple syrup.

    Would an invert sugar syrup (about 2:1 sugar:water with a small bit of acid cooked to 114 C) do the trick for most recipes? Other than that I can only get my hands on excellent quality honey, but the taste is completely different.

    1. Hello Tadas!

      Thanks for getting in touch. You can do a couple of things. First you can simply make a no-syrup pecan pie like this:


      Don’t worry about the added flavoring, it’s not necessary. Alternately you can make a functionally equivalent syrup like this: http://joepastry.com/category/baking-ingredients/syrups-ingredient-basics/make-golden-syrup/

      It’s a Chinese caramel syrup so it has a more caramel-like flavor than corn or cane syrup, but it will work very well in a pecan pie. I’d be inclined to do that before honey since honey has such a distinctive taste.

      Those are my best suggestions…let me know if you try it! Cheers,

      – Joe

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