One of my favorite smells is a conifer forest after a gentle rain. For me, it’s specific and rooted in nostalgia, but it’s also relatable to anyone who has spent time in a Western forest. So, needless to say, I was excited when I learned that you can make a sweet syrup that embodies the essence of that smell, and all you need are two ingredients! Pinecones and sugar.
Pinecone syrup, also known as Mugolio, is a sweet, foresty concoction that has been getting an increasing spotlight over the last couple of years, but not without reason! Almost everyone knows what a pinecone is, and finding out that you can make delicious confections with them is very intriguing! At a base level, pinecone syrup is simply a mixture of immature green pinecones and sugar that, when left to sit for several weeks, becomes a delicious, sweet, piney, citrusy liquid. However, it can get more interesting than that.
Pinecone syrup’s origin, as far as I can find, seems to be the Italian Alps. This region is part of the native range of Mugo pine, Pinus mugo, which is where to name Mugolio comes from. Mugo refers to the tree, and olio means oil in Italian. The oil part of this is interesting to me because there’s another technique that parallels pinecone syrup called oleo saccharum, or oil sugar, in Latin. This method involves mixing citrus peel and sugar, which also results in a flavorful syrup! In Korea, a similar process is used with all sorts of fruits and vegetables to make a sweet syrup called Cheong. I am certain there are other examples from other countries, as well! In English, syrup simply refers to a viscous liquid made of sugar and water. For pinecone syrup, the water is coming from the cones themselves!
It’s important to remember that pine trees can be an important food source for wildlife, are slow growing, and don’t produce bumper crops of cones every year. Some species take upwards of five years between every crop of cones! Keep all of these in mind as you harvest the green cones, and be sure to leave plenty for the critters and future forests. Only harvest cones from trees that have plenty of them, and always leave behind more than you take. If a branch has three or four cones, I may take one of those. Spread your harvest out over many trees through the population. And show reciprocity in whatever way feels right to you. Some people ask permission and give thanks, others pick up trash and care for the environment, and some even take time to remove invasive weeds if they see them growing in the area - could be bonus food! It’s easy to let the excitement overrule a sense of morality. I have been guilty of it in the past myself.
About now, you’re probably wondering where you can find some cones to make this stuff. Before you go on a night mission to pillage your neighbor's manicured Mugo, let me tell you about some of the options for making pinecone syrup, there are many of them! For all of these species, you are looking for immature green pinecones. You can forage these from all species of pine in the Pinus genus, most spruces and firs from Picea and Abies, Douglas firs in Pseudotsuga, some cedar and juniper from Cedrus and Juniperus, and a few other obscure options. Check out my articles on Eating Pine Trees and Foraging Spruces if you need help learning about identifying those trees!
Here are all of the species I have tried and my thoughts about them.
Pinon pine, Pinus edulis. This is my favorite so far. Partially for nostalgic reasons but mostly because it’s delicious. This syrup has notes of tangerine and orange citruses as well as a nice piney flavor.
Scots pine, Pinus sylvestris. Scots pine is a common landscape tree, so the cones are readily available. It has a sharper citrus note and a mild piney flavor. Also, very good!
Ponderosa pine, Pinus ponderosa. I’ve only tried this one once, and it was with older cones. The syrup was good and had a stronger pine flavor than some of the other species.
Austrian pine, Pinus nigra. This one is very similar to ponderosa! Another very common landscape tree that usually has plenty of cones.
Blue spruce, Picea pungens. Syrup made with spruce cones tends to have a more subtle flavor compared to pine cones.
Pinecones aren’t the only wild foods that will work for this method! In the same vein, spruce, fir, and pine tips (the new growth) also work great for this. I’ve also used pollen cones, which are way more abundant and available than seed cones. Any fruit will work as well! I made some wild plum syrup that was amazing! Start experimenting and get creative with it. You might be surprised by what you end up making!
How to Make It
I can’t think of a process that has a better simplicity-to-delicious-outcome ratio! The hardest part is waiting for the syrup to be finished.
Here’s everything you will need to make pinecone syrup:
Container. I usually use a quart jar for 1-2 cups of cones, but smaller and larger batches work equally well!
Cones. Remember to collect them sustainably, as mentioned above. You can always make small batches if you're only able to harvest small amounts of cones.
Sugar. Most natural sweeteners will work! I’ve used white, brown, and turbinado sugar with equal success. Honey, agave, or maple will also work, but they will result in a thinner syrup with less piney flavors. Turbinado has been my favorite so far.
Optionally, some citrus juice helps get things started dissolving, adds flavor, and increases acidity.
Mix the pinecones and sugar in equal amounts. Roughly 50/50 will do the trick, but you can also weigh them or use volume. They’re all a little different but work the same. I usually just eyeball it. You may end up adding some more sugar or supplementing with a splash of water or citrus later on, anyways.
Place a lid on the jar and allow it to sit for at least a month. This is called maceration. The sugar pulls moisture from the cones and dissolves turning into our pinecone syrup!
There are lots of different recommendations on where to store the jar during the process, from the pantry to the roof exposed to the sun and elements - yes, really. My preference is to keep it on the counter where I will see it or on the sill of a sunny window. I think the sun helps dissolve the sugars a little faster!
The cones ferment pretty vigorously for the first week or so, leave the lid slightly open or use a fermentation lid to prevent damage to the jar.
Once the sugar has started to dissolve, usually within the first few days, I start to mix things up every day or two. This prevents any contamination on the cones that become exposed to the air, and it also seems to aid in dissolving the sugar that settles to the bottom.
After the sugar has completely dissolved, strain out the cones and bottle the syrup! It can be stored in the pantry, or fridge, or even be canned, though cooking it will change the flavor and consistency. I’ve had a couple of bottles in our pantry for over three years now. The sugar and acidity make it shelf-stable. I think the refrigerator is the best option if you have the space, and it will likely preserve some of the flavors longer as well!
If you use a liquid sweetener, you could probably get away with a fermentation weight and air-release lid for a totally hands-off process. I prefer working with my ferments, though!
I’ve had a few people tell me that they had issues with contamination, so don’t be completely passive with your syrup. Mix up the jar on occasion! I usually just give everything a good swirl once things are liquidy.
You can use whole green cones up to about an inch in length. If you find larger green cones, you could try cutting them into pieces, but you may have mixed success.
I would say the minimum maceration time is a month or once the sugar is all dissolved. Longer times mean more aging and deeper flavor. I once macerated on for a whole year! If things haven’t completely dissolved after a month and you don’t want to wait any longer, you can pour the contents into a sauce pot, adds some water, and simmer everything until dissolved. It works, but it’s different from the non-cooked version.
The leftover cones are usually too dried out and flavorless to do anything with, but feel free to try experimenting! Let me know if you find anything that works.
If you'd like to learn more about these trees, and over one hundred other species, check out the Foraging Calendar that I make for my Patreon supporters.