What could be better on a chilly morning than a pile of blueberry-sourdough pancakes smothered with fresh, homemade maple syrup? Nothing else this side of the pearly gates comes close. But maple syrup isn’t just for pancakes. It makes a wonderful natural topping for ice cream, pastries, and a thousand other dishes as well as a natural sweetener for teas and roasting meats.
This once common springtime activity has all but been forgotten. Few know how to harvest the natural sweetness found right in their own back yard. While now a mystery, the production of maple syrup requires little in the way of special equipment and doesn’t require a forest of trees. In fact, just s few items and one maple tree is all that is needed to get started.
Any maple tree larger than ten inches in diameter can be tapped, but some species are more productive than others. The native Sugar Maple have more sugar concentration than do Red Maple, Silver Maple (soft maple) or Box Elder, and takes takes less sugar-water to get more syrup. (Syrup is actually made from sugar-water, not sap, but most still call it “sap”.)
The larger the tree, the better. Maples that get plenty of sunshine, such as a yard tree, will produce more sugar-water than those crowded in woods. On a good day a tap on these “sap cows” can produce two gallons or more of sugar-water.
Tapping season can start as soon as New Years Day and run into April, depending on the location and weather. Being in tune with the seasons is crucial to know when to tap. Cold nights (20°F or below) followed by warm days (50°F or above) awaken the trees and start the magic of sugar-water flow. Tapping too soon can allow the tap holes to dry or seal before the real flow starts. Tapping too late can mean little or no syrup. In general, plan on tapping trees in the latter part of February to the first part of March. A run of extra-cold days, windy weather, or continued warm nights will halt the run temporarily. Generally the run will last until the weather starts staying above freezing or the sap turns from clear to milky, sometime in March or April.
For the small-producer tapping can be done with a brace and bit or better yet, a battery drill. For a snug fit, use a drill bit slightly smaller than your taps. A 7/16ths drill bit is best for common metal factory-made spiles.
Drill the hole two to three inches deep at a slightly uphill slant so that the sap can drain out. One hole can be drilled in a tree ten inches in diameter. If the tree is over eighteen inches in diameter two holes can be drilled. For heavier flow drill the holes above a large root. As the years go by, rotate your taps a couple inches away from the old hole.
Drive the taps with a hammer until the tap seals and sap starts coming out the tap. Don’t hammer the spiles in too tight. Not only can the spile be damaged, they can be a problem to remove at the end of the run.
Euell Gibbons told of using elderberry stems in his book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. He would cut them in four inch lengths and punch out the pith with an iron rod. After whittling a slight taper on one end he would cut a notch for hanging the bucket on the other end.
Two gallon tin or galvanized buckets are often used but plastic gallon milk jugs work fine when using common aluminum spiles. A hole is made just above the handle for the spout of the tap and a smaller hole is made for the spile hook lower on the handle. Keep the caps on the jugs to help keep most of the bugs and debris out. Insects will find their way into the sweet water no matter what you do. Just filter them out when you transfer the sugar-water into the holding tank.
Collect the sugar-water daily. As the day warms the sugar-water will begin to flow and drip into the bucket. A drop a second is a good rate.
Collecting the sugar-water can be done at any time but afternoon is best because the buckets can be frozen in the morning. Hand-carried five-gallon buckets can be used for short trips but plan on hauling a collecting tank on a wagon or sled for long trips.
The collecting tank can also be used as a holding tank. Plastic 55-gallon soft-drink syrup drums are great and can be bought from soft drink bottlers.
The bulk of the boiling process is nothing more than boiling off water and concentrating the sugar water into syrup. Find a large container like an old steam table tray, kettle, or even a four quart pot. I have used wood stoves, gas grills, and kitchen stoves to boil. Wood evaporators are the cheapest. Kitchen stoves are the easiest to control.
Initially the goal is a strong rolling boil. Keep an eye on the pan levels and make sure the sugar water doesn’t boil over or get low and burn. At best, burnt syrup is hard to clean up. In the worst case it means replacing the pans.
Real maple syrup evaporators are designed to produce the finished product, meaning syrup can be drawn off the tap. If you’re boiling in buckets or pans it’s too difficult to control the heat for finishing the syrup. Finishing is nothing more than removing the last little bit of water to take the sugar density up to the industry standard. The problem is as the syrup density increases, so does the danger of burning or boiling over.
It is best to take the final few gallons of sugar water and complete the process on the kitchen stove or gas grill. A close watch should be kept on the pan to decrease the heat if necessary. As the syrup thickens all that is needed is a simmer.
There are several ways to tell if the syrup is ready. One way is to keep dipping into the syrup with a spoon. When the syrup “sheets” off the spoon, like a thin sheet of syrup, it’s ready.
Another way is to use a candy thermometer. While water boils at 212 degrees F at sea level, maple syrup boils at seven degrees hotter, or 219 degrees at sea level. As the syrup boils watch the temperature of the sap with a candy thermometer. When the sap reaches 219 degrees, or seven degrees above the temperature at which water boils at your elevation, you have syrup!
Serious back yard syrup makers purchase a hydrometer and stand tube. By floating the hydrometer in a sample of the syrup the density can be checked. When the hydrometer floats at the indicated point, the syrup is ready. This is the most accurate way of checking density.
In some maple syrup producing states there are standards to producers go by. Standard density maple syrup is 67 degrees Brix at 60 degrees F. While maple syrup seems thin compared to the mix of corn syrups found today, syrup that is too dense forms sugar crystals. Thin syrup that isn’t dense enough can spoil and is a poor-tasting product.
As the syrup boils down minerals in the syrup can form niter or “sugar sand” which tastes awful. Straining the syrup removes most of the impurities and sugar sand from the finished syrup and leaves a pure, clear, amber liquid. As the syrup is nearing completion set up a colander and another bowl large enough to catch all the syrup. Place a sterile, lint free towel or cotton sheet in the colander, and the colander into the large bowl. Many hobby producers use wool felt filters made for the job. When the syrup is at temperature pour it into the sheet, through the colander and into the large bowl. It helps if the filter and canister are heated with a hair dryer or other means to keep the syrup hot and thin. Cool syrup will not flow through the dense fiber of the filter.
Maple syrup is all natural and will spoil if it is not preserved by canning. Pints canning jars or half-pint jars are best. As the sap is finishing, clean and sanitize enough jars to hold all the syrup currently being made. As soon as the filtering is done pour the syrup into the jars and seal. As the jars cool the lids should pull in by way of vacuum. If the jars do not seal by the time they are cool, then they need to be reheated and resealed.
The syrup is now done and ready to consume. Any open containers of syrup must be refrigerated to prevent spoiling.
Making maple sugar is simply boiling away more water. Slowly and carefully boil a quart or more of syrup in a four quart pan until the temperature reaches 235 degrees to 245 degrees, stirring to keep it from boiling over. At the right temperature remove the pan from the heat and let it cool without stirring or disturbing until the temperature reaches 175 degrees. When the syrup has cooled to 175 degrees stir until the syrup starts to lighten and becomes thick and creamy. Quickly spoon portions onto a cookie sheet or into molds and let cool. The sugar will harden quickly as it cools so don’t dawdle!
The lumps of sugar will store well in a dry location or in a freezer…provided the family sweet tooth doesn’t eat it all first.
The season ends when the sugar water turns to sap and becomes bitter or yellow, or the weather turns warm and the sap stops running, or you get too tired to carry another bucket! Be sure to pull all the taps right away to let the tree heal. A gentle tug with a claw hammer is all that is needed in most cases. Before putting all of the buckets and pans away for the summer, wash everything well or mold will grow in the sugar left behind.
When just starting, a family will most likely consume more syrup than they can produce. As experience and equipment grows, so will the amount of syrup produced. Maple syrup is always in demand for gifts, barter commodities, and to be sold. Once word gets out among family, friends and neighbors, demand will always exceed supply and it doesn’t take long before your wallet tastes the sweetness. Who knows—it might just become the family business!
For maple syrup supplies check out Lapierre Equipment.
Spiles can be had on ebay: Maple syrup spiles.