When most people think about Maple Sugaring, they get visions of Golden Maple leaves and Sugar Houses with steam rolling up towards the sky. Vermont, buckets hanging on spigots driven into the maple trees, happy faces, red cheeks and good friends enjoying themselves. All this is true.
Also true, is the fact that it is a lot of work to make Maple Syrup.
Big operations with large amounts of trees have many different ways of harvesting the sap needed to make syrup. Some still use the traditional buckets and others use plastic piping that runs downhill to pumps and eventually to collecting points where the raw sap is hauled to the Sugar House for processing.
Then there are the smaller operations, and smaller still, the backyard syrup maker.
For about three years now I have been tapping some maple trees on my property and making my own syrup.
I can say without a doubt it is a very labor intensive pastime. It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to produce ONE gallon of syrup.
Picking the trees….
During the fall season when the trees are in their glory is the time to go out and see exactly what you have to deal with. I walk around and find the trees by their colored leaves and then mark them with a bit of orange paint so I don’t get the wrong trees later in the season when the leaves are all gone. Trees should be at least 12 inches across before you tap them for sap.
Late in January, at least in my area, I go out with a drill and one or two ‘collectors’. I tap a couple trees and then check and wait, and wait and wait for the sap to start ‘running’…this happens when the night time temps dip to below freezing and the days are sunny and warmer. This starts the sap rising into the trunk of the tree where it is made available.
I never went with the bucket/tap collection, but use small plastic taps and plastic tubing with empty milk bottles as collectors. Drill a hole in the cap, insert the plastic tubing, drill a hole on an upward angle into the tree, and drive the tap into the hole. This makes a ‘bug free/dirt free’ collector. Plus when it is cold and you are out collecting, you can just unscrew the cap and pour off the jug into a bigger container. I use a 5 gallon bucket for this.
Disclaimer: you will probably note the dates on the above pictures..yes, I just took them, but it is still my collector of choice. Another benefit is you can tell at a glance if there is any sap in the jug.
If you only tap a few trees, or the sap isn’t running good on a particular day, you can store the sap in a cool place or refrigerator for several days until you get enough collected to start boiling it down. It should be stored below 38 degrees and not kept for more than 7 days.
Cooking the sap….
The larger operations with sugar houses use huge multi-stage evaporators costing thousands of dollars. They are usually wood fired. As you can see by the above picture a smaller operation can use just about any means of boiling the sap. Make a boiler from cinder blocks and fire brick and put a couple pans on top to boil the sap. Fire it with wood if you have an abundant supply. I’ve seen pictures of people using the foil pans but wouldn’t recommend those because of the safety aspect.
The first year I used a turkey fryer and propane. Not the most ideal means as there was really not a lot of surface area. The next year I ordered a Excellante Full Size Deep Pan from Amazon. The pan is like the ones you see in buffet lines and works really well. I now put it on my grill. They come in different sizes and depths and you surely can find one to fit your grill.
You have to keep a pretty close watch on it and add more sap as the water boils out. That is the key, the 40 gallons of sap need to be reduced to 1 gallon before you can call it syrup. If your grill is large enough, or the pans smaller, you can use a smaller one to pre-heat the sap and reduce the time it takes to come back to a boil.
Oh, and make sure you do this OUTSIDE if you don’t want your kitchen to require cleaning. There is a lot of steam!
When the sap is reduced to the point where it is beginning to look brownish, you can move into the house for the final stages. While you are cooking it down further you can also be getting your bottles or jars ready. I boil the lids and bottles just like I would any jars used for canning. Just to keep everything nice and clean.
You need to be pretty precise about the temperature as you don’t want the syrup to scorch. The first year I used a candy thermometer and it was less than satisfactory. So I bought a ThermoWorks The Original Cooking Thermometer/Timer. It is highly accurate and has an alarm function built in. An added benefit is you can use it all year round to cook other things. With the shielded cable and long probe it works fine in the oven and the cable doesn’t get crushed when you close the oven door.
Once the syrup reaches a temperature of 7 degrees above boiling (dependent on your particular area/elevation) it is time to bottle the product. You can also use Specific density to decide when to bottle and it is measured with a hydrometer. The syrup must reach standard density of 66.5 to 66.7 degrees Brix, the scale used by sugar makers to measure the percentage of sugar in the syrup. Special meters can be purchased (see links below).
Many sugaring sites recommend filtering the syrup, but to be honest I haven’t found the need since the collection jugs are covered. I just pour it off into the hot jars and close them up.
I have stored the syrup in my refrigerator for as long as a year with no problems.
If you do develop any mold, simply skim it off, and re-heat the syrup and put into a clean container.
This is the result of boiling 38 gallons of sap….gives you about 3000 ml of syrup (0.8 gal)…..
You can also add syrup to many recipes for a sweet taste. It is even better when you can sit back with a stack of Buckwheat pancakes and know YOU made the syrup!
For additional information just run a bing.com search and there will be more than you can read in a weeks time.
In any event, get busy and enjoy your own, home made, maple syrup!!!