Home sweet home: a beginner's guide to home maple sugaring.
My better half has patiently endured all of my attempts at creating products that are clearly easier and cheaper to pay someone else to make. Some have been successful, and some, maybe not quite so. Among my many previous efforts were a barrel of dill pickles (yes, an actual barrel), jelly, several attempts at soft pretzels, and by now I'm sure you have guessed--I have my own ice cream maker.
As we walked past the vat of boiling maple sap at the height of sugaring season, my thoughts were obvious, I have maple trees--I can do this. Why, you might ask, would I want to undertake such a task when I can simply continue to the selection at the far end of the sugar house, with its leaf-shaped glass bottles and assorted jugs of pure amber colored sweet maple syrup, and just buy some? It may be my entrepreneurial or "thrifty" Yankee nature. Perhaps it's the challenge of trying something new to help fulfill my desire to better understand how things work. Maybe it's the romantic and nostalgic history and a longing for a simpler time. Mostly, I love real maple syrup.
I'm sure I wondered, "how difficult can this really be, this production of maple syrup?" You simply collect sap from your trees and boil it until ... voila; it becomes sweet maple syrup. In simplified terms, there really isn't much more to it.
I've been "boiling" now for over a decade, occasionally skipping a season. My kids rarely let a spring go by without insisting that I crank up my mini syrup operation. And, it is mini. With only five trees large enough for tapping, I get anywhere from a couple of quarts to a gallon of pure maple syrup, depending on the length of the season and how much is devoted to syrup, with the rest used to make maple candy, a family favorite.
If you want to do this yourself, it really isn't difficult once you learn the basics. I've asked a lot of questions during my sugar house visits, supplemented with knowledge from the internet with all of this helping me to refine my own technique.
I have made mistakes making my own maple syrup and you can learn from these. First, don't boil in the house unless you have a powerful externally vented fan above your stove. At least, don't boil the bulk of your sap indoors without opening the windows. For my first experience at boiling, I used the kitchen stove resulting in a frightening cloud of moisture. There's a reason that sugar houses have huge open louvers in the roofs, and that is to let the massive volume of steam escape. The fog had condensed on my kitchen walls and water literally dribbled down like a bathroom mirror near a hot shower. If you choose to try your hand at sap boiling I suggest that you do most of it outdoors and finish it off inside as described in the 'boiling' section below.
Second, do not fall asleep when making syrup. Boiling sap into syrup takes many hours. During one evening's long boil down, I drifted off in front of the television on the family room couch, following which (some hours later I guess) I was sharply awakened by my son's shaking, "Dad, Dad, do you know the smoke alarms are going off?" Of course I did ... after I woke up. Fortunately, he's a lighter sleeper than I and apparently everyone else in the house. But unfortunately my batch of maple syrup had congealed into a hardened dark burned mass on the bottom of the pan, producing nothing but acrid smoke.
One important detail is the amount of boiling required. The ratio of sap to syrup is roughly 40 to 1, so it takes at least 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of pure maple syrup, or 10 gallons of sap for a quart. That's a lot of boiling for a small amount of syrup, but I think well worth the effort.
I'm not alone in the pursuit of my own private label syrup; I have seen many a pail hanging on tapped trees. You don't need to live in the country to produce syrup; I've seen taps and pails on single trees in small urban lots. Within a few miles of my own home, there are two households that collect sap every year as the spring renders its warmth to the northern hemisphere. One has only a few tapped trees, and the other has at least twenty with the owner using plastic gallon jugs for collection.
The highest quality maple syrup, "grade A amber," comes at the beginning of the season and is the lightest in color. As the weeks pass and the temperatures warm, the color darkens and the quality drops. The best syrup is produced when the nights are below freezing and the days are warm, providing sap that flows more freely. Some people, however, have a preference for a stronger maple flavor and opt for a lower grade of syrup.
There are strict standards for the grading of maple syrup, labeled according to quality based upon color. Some states don't allow for the retail sale of the lowest grades, which are often sold in bulk for commercial purposes.
I've listed some basic guidelines below, but I recommend that you visit web sites such as state agricultural services sites that provide explicit instructions for producing maple syrup. Here are a couple of very good maple syrup websites:
First and foremost, be careful! There are countless ways to cause injury and damage when working with the various tools, syrup (that is hotter than boiling water), fire, and maybe propane or gas depending upon how you choose to boil. You should be alert, rested, and patient when collecting and boiling down your sap. It is a long, slow process, so you need to be in it for the long haul once you commit to it.
Tapping It can be a bit difficult trying to figure
out which trees are sugar maples, especially in winter. In the dormant season with no leaves, an oak tree may look a lot like a maple tree to a novice. If you are unsure which of your trees are maples, your best bet is to identify them in the other seasons while they still have leaves, and remember to mark them. If you don't know what a maple leaf looks like, use the library or the Internet and search for "sugar maple leaf," or "how to identify a sugar maple tree." There are several species of maple trees that will yield suitable sap, but the renowned and colorful sugar maple is best.
The tapping activity isn't too difficult, but the key is in getting actual tree taps, or spouts, or spiles. They are inexpensive (a dollar or two) and are readily available, at least in my area of southern New Hampshire. Some newer taps are made of tough plastic or composite material, but I prefer the old-fashioned metal spouts for nostalgic reasons. For those folks interested in a larger operation, there are taps for high-production collection designed for connection of plastic tubing that runs downhill, tree to tree, for sap collection into larger buckets or barrels. Tapping spouts can usually be purchased in smaller feed and grain or country hardware stores at the beginning of sugaring season and are frequently displayed on the counter right near the cash registers. If you can't find them, there are many online sources.
You'll need a drill for boring a hole into the tree for the spout. I prefer a hand bit brace drill or hand auger drill (the one that resembles a crank), but a battery powered drill can work well too if it is powerful enough. And you'll need a sharp 7/16-inch drill bit for the standard size taps.
Trees must be at least 10 inches in diameter (31 inches in circumference) in order to tap them. Otherwise it will produce too little sap and could damage the tree. The tree should be measured at a point 4-1/2 or more feet above the ground. Trees more than 20 inches in diameter (64 inches in circumference), can support two taps, and trees more than 25 inches, (79 inches in circumference), three taps. You should never use more than three spouts in one tree.
First year tapping can be done at just about anywhere on the tree, but you may want to select the shady side if you won't be routinely emptying your pails. Warm sap spoils more quickly, (see storage instructions, below). Tapping of the same tree in subsequent years should not be done in the same area as previous taps--that is, not directly above or below the previous tap--and it should be at least six inches higher or lower. Drill in a clean area of the tree with smooth healthy bark where possible. Do not drill into a section of the tree that appears damaged or dead.
The hole should be drilled at a slight upward angle to a depth of 1 1/2 inches. Clean the hole well so that it doesn't get clogged or emit wood particles into the sap. Flushing with fresh water works well; I use a new cooking (turkey) baster and a pail of clean water, and I blast the clean water into the hole before tapping the spout into the tree.
Lightly tap the spout into the tree with a small hammer. Don't pound too hard, since this may split the tree causing permanent damage, yet hard enough so that you can't easily pull the spout out. Remember that you will be removing the tap in a month or two and you don't want that to be difficult. You should do your tapping on warm days, as doing this on days that are below freezing risks splitting or damaging the tree.
Determining exactly when to begin your sap collection isn't too difficult really. You should begin after the harsh coldness of winter is about over, when the days are warming to above freezing. Sugaring season may last from four to six weeks or more, so once you begin, you're essentially committed to it for the duration. If you are unsure when to begin, you can simply use my method of "cheating." There are two sugar houses within 10 miles of my house, and I begin my drive-by observations when I think the time is getting close. If the pails are out on their trees, then it's time for me to begin. Sometimes I just call them and ask if they are boiling yet. You can likely find several sugar houses in your own area.
The sap will accumulate gradually during the warm days, a drop at a time. You may find that if the days are not warm enough, the sap will stop flowing completely and then continue days later as the weather warms again.
I collect my sap daily and add it to larger storage pails for later boiling. I have come home some days to find my tap pails overflowing, so you'll want to collect your sap often when it is "running."
Since the boiling takes so long, I collect and save my sap for boiling on weekends. Sap will spoil and turn cloudy if it is too warm for too long, so I have my own "refrigeration" system to preserve my sap until ready for use. There is almost always snow on the ground during sugaring season, and I use this to my advantage. I select a good level spot in the shaded side of the house and dig a hole in the snow the right size for my storage pails. These larger pails hold about five to seven gallons of sap. I ensure that the lids are tight to prevent anything getting into them, including critters. I pack snow around them and cover them with a canvas or other heavy cloth. I add my daily collection of sap to these "refrigerators" until I'm ready to boil within the next few days.
The quality of your syrup will drop and become unusable when the buds begin to form on the trees, and this is when you should remove the spouts from the tap holes. You may need to gently pry them out with the claw end of a hammer. Do not plug the empty tap holes; they will naturally heal over in the next year or so.
Collected sap should be pre-filtered before you begin boiling to remove any pieces of bark or foreign material that may have fallen in. I use a cheesecloth that I fold over several times and hold in place on the top of the larger bucket with a large elastic.
I have tried a couple of different methods at boiling down the sap over the years. The first year, I boiled it all down in the kitchen (I discussed that mistake above). Then I used a two-burner propane camping stove that worked well, but it took a while to evaporate most of the water in the sap. I also tried putting my sap in a kettle on the wood stove, but quickly gave up on that.
My wife eventually bought me a great gift, a turkey deep fryer. I have never cooked a turkey in it, but it has, without a doubt, been an incredible time saver for boiling. These use a propane tank like those in a gas grill. I'm not sure of the BTU output, but when I crank it up to full, it's reminiscent of a jet engine. These turkey deep fryers can be purchased for around $50 at the larger home improvement and department stores (I've been thinking of getting a second one). If you use one of these, heed the manufacturer's warnings as they can be dangerous when not used correctly.
You do not need to keep your batches separate. As your batch on the fire boils down and concentrates the sap, you can simply keep adding more sap until you have boiled it all down into a single kettle or pan.
As the sap is boiled down concentrating the maple sugar level, it tends to foam and could overflow the pan. Sugar houses add a little commercial anti-foaming agent to it to prevent this. You can use a tiny amount of vegetable oil or butter. I prefer butter. It only takes a little bit, and I add pea-sized amounts to my kettle one at a time as needed to stop the foaming. It usually only takes a few to control it.
Finishing on the stove
As the sugars concentrate, the remaining sap darkens from clear to an amber color when the water is boiled out. You'll see the syrup begin to thicken, and the sweet aroma will gradually become evident. It's a wonderful fragrance! When almost all of the sap has been boiled away, I transfer it to a smaller pan and move to the indoor kitchen stove.
You can determine the completion of the boiling process with an accurate cooking or candy thermometer. These are inexpensive and well worth the investment. I purchased a digital model that is easy to read to a tenth of a degree.
This is the most critical part of the evaporation process and it has to be just right. When the correct amount of water has been removed from the sap, you will have the concentration of sugar needed for maple syrup. The temperature of the boiling concentrated sap will gradually continue to rise until your syrup is ready. When it reaches the right temperature (see next paragraph), turn the heat off and stop boiling. As the temperature approaches the completion point, I recommend lowering the heat a bit to slow down the boiling process, particularly if you are dealing with a small amount of finished syrup. This will allow a more accurate reading without overdoing it. Continuing to boil after the correct temperature has been reached will concentrate the sugars too much, which might result in the gradual formation of sugar crystals in the finished bottles of syrup.
Your geographic elevation will determine the exact temperature needed for maple syrup, which is 7.2[degrees]F above the boiling point of water. Pure water boils at 212[degrees]F at sea level, so the syrup would be finished boiling there at 219.2[degrees]F. If you live in a higher area, your water will boil at a higher temperature and the syrup will require a higher temperature for completion.
To determine your water boiling point, boil up a pan of water with your thermometer in it. Bring it to a full rolling boil, then note the temperature. Distilled or pure water is best for this test, as some water impurities, treatments, or hardness can affect boiling temperatures. Adjusting your temperature based on the water boiling point will also allow for any minor discrepancies in the thermometer performance. My water boils at 212.2[degrees]F, so my syrup is ready when the boiled sap reaches 219.4[degrees]F.
I have found this to be a difficult part of the maple syrup process, particularly when dealing with small amounts. The maple syrup produces natural sediment during the boiling process referred to as "niter" that will slowly settle to the bottom of your syrup. Professional sugar houses use pressure to force the syrup through filters to trap the sediment, but the apparatus to do this is too costly for small-time production.
I have tried filtering through colanders and strainers with various types of cloth (wool is often recommended). I have tried coffee filters and feed store filters used for goat milk. None of these work particularly well since they all absorb too much of the syrup before the filtering begins. This wastes a lot of syrup from what is precious little to begin with, and filtering this way is extremely slow.
To remove the niter, I bottle the syrup and wait for the sediment to settle for a few days or more, and then slowly pour the syrup from the top of the bottles leaving the sediment behind. Some syrup is still lost, however, even with this approach. After the clear syrup is separated, I reheat it until it is almost at the boiling point again, and then pour it into sterilized bottles as discussed in the next section.
For anyone who has ever preserved jelly, the bottle preparation process is much the same. Prepare your bottles ahead of time so that you are not rushed when you need them. You should clean and thoroughly rinse the bottles and then sterilize them to kill any residual bacteria by immersing them in boiling water for two minutes. Remove them and drain the water.
If you don't have bottles, then you could use jelly jars available at most larger supermarkets and many retail or craft stores. The Internet has a huge number of sources where you can purchase all sizes and shapes of bottles. You can even get some of those cute maple leaf shaped bottles if you are so inclined. I found some little five-ounce fluted glass "woozy" bottles and purchased several cartons of these a few years ago. These are a handy size for storage as well as for gifts. Finding bottles for sale on the Internet is an easy task using any of the search engines. You'll literally get millions of "hits." Make sure that the bottles come with caps, or order them separately if not.
Syrup should be bottled hot. It should be poured into clean sterilized bottles as soon as possible after you have stopped boiling it and capped immediately. But be careful! You can burn yourself very quickly with hot syrup and bottles. A small funnel, available at kitchen and cooking stores, will help with the bottling. Remember to clean and sterilize the funnel before use.
All of your equipment should be cleaned thoroughly at the end of the season before putting it away for next year. This includes the spouts, pails, everything that comes in contact with the sap or finished syrup. This is the single least enjoyable part of the whole season's activity. Never use soap or detergents when cleaning as they can leave a residual film that may concentrate in the sap boiling process, degrading the flavor or aroma. I clean with a recommended weak unscented household bleach, diluted at 20 parts water to one part bleach, followed by a good rinsing. Use a rough cloth to scrub off any foam accumulation, then rinse and dry thoroughly before packing away until the next spring.
There are many different varieties of candy and products that can be made from your maple syrup including soft maple sugar candy; hard maple sugar candy; granulated maple sugar; maple cream spread; maple fondant; and Jack wax made on snow. I've settled on the soft maple sugar candy, a family favorite. The others you can research on the Internet, which has loads of information and recipes.
The soft maple sugar candy seems to be the most popular and is often formed into the shape of maple leaves. This is the maple candy that you usually see for sale at maple sugar houses and large farm stands or apple orchards.
Candy forms can be purchased at many web sites for use in making the soft candy. The candy should be poured or pressed into the form while hot and removed after it has fully cooled. In small batches, the soft candy isn't difficult to make but it is hard to form into shapes because it cools too quickly, so I take a simplified approach. I make the candy and spread it out over parchment paper on a cookie sheet, or drop it in spoonful-sized dollops. After cooling, I break it into serving sized pieces. Either way, it doesn't last long, at least in my house.
I also scrape the remaining hardened sugar off the sides of the pan when done making candy and crush it into granulated maple sugar. This is great in coffee or tea.
Maple sugaring can be quite a lot of work, but worth the effort and a great learning experience for your children. It is definitely possible for almost anyone to make their own maple syrup with the right set of basic tools and knowledge of the process. Have fun, enjoy yourself, enjoy the season, and enjoy your home made maple syrup!
BY DALE ROBINSON
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|Title Annotation:||The sugar shack|
|Publication:||Countryside & Small Stock Journal|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2012|
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