Mugolio, a dark, aromatic syrup imbued with the flavor of pine cones, is the poster child for the kind of crazy cool, Illuminati-esque foodstuff foragers have access to, all for the price of a hike, or even less, depending on how close you are to some pine trees.
The syrup came on my radar when my friend Dan Farmer gave me a little jar of some he made to try. I remember it being good, but I forgot about it until I opened the Salt Cellar, and started making my own from spruce tips, which is excellent, but not quite the same as pine cone syrup (for the record both are great).
Mugolio is now still a bit of a chef secret, and available through elite specialty distributors, but the price is staggeringly high, exorbitant even, when you consider you can make nearly the exact same thing at home, for less than it costs to make a cake.
A chef secret that takes months to make
The cost of mugolio is not found in ingredients, but is paid in time. How much time is certainly up for debate, and you’ll notice my recipe turns around a lot quicker than burying a jar of pine cones and sugar in the yard and digging it up the next year (an actual recipe from Romania). You’ll want to wait at least a month for a good pine syrup, although aging it longer can be fun.
Mugolio: more than just pine cones
Real quick, some reality. I use the word mugolio interchangeably for syrups made from numerous tree parts, if you look around you’ll see mugolio usually refers to a syrup made from the young cones of mugo pine (Pinus mugo), harvested at a specific time of year, under the strictest of conditions, blah, blah, blah.
I’ve made all kinds of similar sugar based products from all kinds of conifer parts, and it isn’t some difficult, arcane thing you can only do in the light of a full moon— just the opposite.
Making mugolio is easy, and there’s a very forgiving time window for harvesting cones, or other things products like cedar cones, wintergreen, juniper, or spruce tips. All of the aforementioned making excellent syrups in their own right.
There’s something special about the pine cone syrup though. Pine cones hold more water than any other thing I’ve used, and they also ferment during the maceration process, vigorously.
The day after you combine the pine cones and sugar, there will look as if there was a rush and release of water—what was once a solid packed jar of pine cones and sugar is not 75 % full and liquid.
Species of unripe pine cones I've used to make syrup
Variation in flavor between species
One of the most fascinating things about mugolio is that every species of tree you harvest unripe cones from will impart a noticeably different flavor unique to the finished product.
Once I started to notice the different flavors, I made a point out of trying to "mugolio" as many different species of unripe coniferous cone I can, and I found some fascinating things. Here's a quick breakdown of the differences between flavors I taste.
Mugolio made from pinus cones have a resinous, assertive taste.
Spruces lack the aggressive resinous flavor of pines and are the most subtle of all I've tasted. Instead of the resinous taste, spruce cones, just like spruce tips, have a citrusy note to them, and so will syrups made from their cones.
Thuja and likely others/Cedars
The only cedar I've made mugolio with is the green cones Thuja occidentalis, since they're easy to find in landscaping. It has a taste exactly like the aroma of fresh green cedar, a bit in between spruce and pine mugolios.
Of all the syrups here, and all the different flavors, the syrups I've made from balsam fir are the most delicious.
Firs have a resinous punch like pine mugolios, but it's slightly less aggressive, and most noticeably, comes with strong notes of warm spices like cloves, allspice, and cinnamon.
Unfortunately, mature balsam fir trees, at least around me, seem to only want to grow cones at the very top of the tree, which can make getting enough for a batch of syrup tricky.
Using other conifer products
Other tree products like spruce tips, pine tips and cedar cones I've worked with are more dry, and may not ferment during the maceration process, but they can still make a fine syrup.
The point is: you can make syrups like this out of all kinds of things, and everyone I’ve had has been good. If you have spruce trees near you, take a look at the basic spruce tip syrup too, which is nearly the same, sans the fermentation. Here's a few things I've used:
- Unripe eastern white cedar cones (Thuja occidentalis. This could can be an abortifacient in high doses)
- Juniper berries (Juniperis virginiana)
- Spruce tips (many species)
The best part is figuring out how to use it. Somethings take some experimentation, mugolio not so much.
You can literally put it on just about anything where maple syrup would be good, and you’ll be glad you did. The syrup has the essence of pine, but with none of the strong tannins you’d expect If you took a bite out of a pine cone—just pure piney goodness.
Harvest young pine cones in spring or early summer
Most importantly, you are looking for unripe pine cones in the spring and early summer, not the fall, not the winter. Opened cones are not to be used.
This is up for debate, but my favorite comes from green cones as they contain more water. Purists might say that you need to harvest pine cones when they're the size of a pinky nail, or some other arbitrary size.
I can tell you after making this for years now, that any of the pine cones pictured in the image above will make a fine syrup, but smaller cones will make a syrup with a much stronger flavor, strong enough that some people may not like it.
Another good rule of thumb I've found is that whatever cone you're picking will probably be sticky and exuding resinous, sticky liquid at a prime stage for making pine cone syrup.
Green cone=higher water content
Larger green cones hold more water in them which makes syrup making much easier, and also allows for some fermentation in the process, which adds fun flavors.
As long as the cones are meristematic and tender, and can be cut through with a knife, even if it's into pieces with long cones like white spruce or balsam fir, they will make a good mugolio. The only cones that won't work, are mature, tough, barky cones, like those you'd see on the ground.
Using very young pine cones
You can use young pine cones, but they're smaller and don't hold as much water as cones that are green, so they're not ideal here.
If you really want to try with very young pine cones, try chopping them up medium to make it so more cones can be fit in a jar, which means more water, meaning an easier syrup. You can also add a splash of water to help it on it's way.
Is it safe?
Yes, this is absolutely, positively safe, and there's no need to worry about botulism. I can't speak to the exact science of spruce tip and cedar cones syrups, (also safe) but pine cone syrup is especially safe as it ferments as it macerates, due to the higher water content of the cones if harvested at the green stage.
The extended fermentation lowers the pH, making it shelf stable. Remember that sugar is a preservative, and conifer products are all naturally acidic, which is a preservative in itself.
Consider using gloves
The most prime pine and spruce cones for making syrup will be plump, but still unripe. At this stage, most of them will be very sticky and oozing a sappy resinous substance that will quickly coat your hands and will stay for hours. Consider wearing gloves to avoid sticky hand syndrome.
Choosing the right sugar
Some recipes might call for white sugar, and while it will work and give you a flavored syrup, white sugar is more dry, and I find the clear color far less attractive than the caramel color that organic, unrefined turbinado-style sugar or even light brown sugar or a similar substitute will give.
I try to avoid using plain white sugar when I can, and I highly doubt that original mugolio recipes used such highly refined products when the first adventurous people crafted them.
Use a good sugar that you can feel good about eating, and drizzling over everything, because you'll want to drizzle it, on, well, everything. Here's a list of sugars that will work
Turbinado is slightly more dry than commercial brown sugars, but it has an excellent flavor.
Light, golden, or dark brown sugar
These are some of the most versatile and affordable, but I suggest using a high quality organic brand. The varying molasses content of the different colors of sugar is negligible in regards to the flavor of the finished syrup.
Maple sugar is the most expensive you could use, and in my opinion is not the most ideal as it's prone to crystallization from my experience. It is delicious though. If you'd like to harness the flavor of maple with your pine cones, you can just toss pine cones into maple syrup at a ratio of 1 cup of pine cones to 1 lb (2 cups) of maple syrup.
This stuff is unique enough that it needs a special mention. Zirbenschnaps is a liquor made with pine cones.
I’m not an expert on distillation by any means, but I’ve been working with a distillery to make similar products, and one thing we’ve been toying around with is making a rendition of it by simply using it as the sweetener in a macerated liquor.
The traditional zirbenshnaps has a red tone to its color, which makes me think they’re using a syrup made from fresh pine cones cooked immediately—not aged.
I know there’s also birch schnaps, and that’s made with reduced birch syrup, so I think using mugolio would be fine. Currently I know zirbenshnaps is only sold at ultra high-end restaurants in my area.
Whatever you make with it, it’s one of the most fascinating and delicious condiments made from wild ingredients I know of.
Making Large Batches
I occasionally make very large batches of syrup, 2 or 3 gallons at a time. Here's a few tips on doing that if it's something you're interested in, especially as this is such a fun (also cheap) and interesting thing to give as gifts. The tips below are intended for those people making 1 gallon batches and up at a time.
Skimming the foam
Similar to maple syrup, when you cook large quantities of the syrup, it will begin to froth and foam at the top and will double in size quickly.
Some cones seem to create more foam than others, especially Norway Spruce. When you notice foam during the cooking process, do your best to skim it off with a spoon and discard.
After you bring the syrup to a simmer and strain, put it back in the pot and bring it to a simmer again, let it rest for a minute or two so the syrup can settle and return to it's original volume. If you don't do this, you run the risk of having jars that are half full after settling.
Canning for long-term storage
Pour the piping hot syrup into large jars, or, for smaller ones, pour the syrup into a pitcher with a spout, and pour directly into canning jars (4 oz mason jars make a great gift). Fill the jars nearly to the brim, leaving about ⅛ inch headspace, then, working quickly, screw on the lids tight and turn the jars upside down.
You don't have to water bath-process this as it's basically the same sugar concentration as maple syrup, just make sure your jars are clean. The jars will seal naturally but should be refrigerated after opening.
Here’s a few ideas for using it, and a few things yet on my list to try.
Ideas for using
- Drizzled on pancakes, crepes waffles and other things primed for syrup.
- Use it to flavor whipped cream
- Excellent drizzled over soft cheese like mascarpone, labneh, chevre, etc.
- Drizzled over fresh fruit
- Using in place of honey, I love drizzling it over bowls of warm buttered wild rice with nuts, fruit, and yogurt for breakfast.
- It’s good in desserts, added in small amounts like you would use honey. Dairy based desserts like ice cream, panna cotta and custards of all kinds can just be seasoned to taste with it.
- Try adding small drizzles to salads, or whisking into vinaigrettes.
- Mixing it with a splash of vinegar just to loosen it a bit makes a good brush on or glaze for hams, etc.
- One of my friends adds it to whiskey
Mugolio, or Pine Cone Syrup
- 1 quart mason jar or similar
- 2 cups (8 oz) young red pine or other pine cones (soft enough to be cut with a knife) *
- 2 cups (16 oz) organic brown sugar or other brown sugar, just not white which is dry and makes a clear syrup
- Rinse the cones in warm water to remove any foreign particles if needed. I don't usually wash them. Inspect your cones for any that have holes or insects and discard.
- Combine the sugar and pine cones and pack into a quart jar, then allow to macerate (age) for 30 days. Put the jars in a sunny place where they will get warm during the day, which will help ward off mold.
- During the first few weeks of maceration, open the jar occasionally to release carbon dioxide as the mixture will ferment vigorously. Shake it occasionally to help it on it's journey.
- As the cones release their water, the volume of the contents in the jar will decrease. If you have more cones and sugar, you can add it to fill up the jar.
Finishing and storing
- After the maceration is complete, scrape the sugar slush and pine cones into a pot, bring to a brisk simmer and heat through to melt the sugar, then strain and bottle. Discard the cooked cones and thank them for their service.
- All you need to do is bring the temperature up and melt the sugar, if you reduce the syrup too much it will crystalize after it cools. For the amounts listed it should take about 5-10 minutes.
- The syrup is stable at room temperature since the fermentation lowers the pH, but will keep the best flavor in the fridge. It can also be water bath processed.