Sunday, March 20, 2011

We're Maple Sugaring

The first big autodidact project for me and my family of 2011 is maple sugaring. Yes, I have taken my interest in wildcrafting to new levels.

We live in Connecticut. I was raised on Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth's and Log Cabin fake maple syrup. Yep. Sad, huh? When my grandmother was forced to retire from her job at age 70 (before age discrimination was made illegal) she retired back to her homestead in northern Maine. She began buying pure Maine maple syrup from her friend and giving it to our family as gifts. After I got married I had a steady supply gifted to me. I became a food snob about maple syrup. Once you start using pure maple syrup, you never can go back.

When my grandmother passed away we lost our source of free syrup. I am on the last bits of the few gallons she gave me when she was near the end of her life. She knew she was dying, and she was giving us stuff left and right in case it was the last time we'd see her. The last time I saw her she pushed me to take three gallons!

In 2010 I found out that a homeschool mom friend who lives on wooded property about an hour away from me maple sugars and she boosted my confidence. I ran out and bought taps at Agway, feeling full of inspiration. I then bought some books and read websites about maple sugaring which scared me into thinking it's really bad to boil it down indoors and that outdoor cooking should be done. That was not an option as I had no outdoor fire pit, so I was afraid to try it. I also was unable to correctly identify maple trees based on bark alone, and wasn't even sure which of my trees were maples!

But this winter I was inspired when driving past some homes, I saw a couple of maple trees tapped and thought, why not? I already knew it was the right weather for maple sugaring: nights below freezing and days above freezing. When I got home at dusk that night I asked my husband to get his drill and the correct size bit (quickly researched in my book) and out we went to tap two trees. (When the trees leafed out in 2010 I identified two sugar maples close to my house on the edges of our woods so I knew where they were.)

So, using books for instructions I taught myself to maple sugar. This book was my primary resource: Backyard Sugarin' by Mann.

I only tapped two trees that night. After that I scouted every tree on my property by studying the bark and scrounging for leaves on the ground to double-check. I found only one other sugar maple of the correct size, in a not-convenient location and decided that tapping two trees this year is enough. We have two acres of woods here but most are oaks and black birch with some hickory, beech, wild dogwoods, wild black cherry, white and gray birches and some witch hazels.

Sugar Maple leaf found on the ground at the base of a tree in March.

We're enjoying this. My ten year old loves to go gather the sap even though it's heavy to carry.

Here are some photos of the process.

1. Identify maple trees. The bark has vertical lines only and is gray. The ridges are not as deep as oak or black walnut. Check the size, they must be over 10 inches in diameter.

2. Tap trees and hang a food safe bucket. (Check detailed instructions on the size bit to use and the proper process to avoid splitting the tree.)

3. The sap is clear and thin. It looks just like water.  Strain to get any bugs out (it attracts gnats, mosquitoes, ants and moths).  Then put in pot and bring to a boil with lid on.

4. Remove lid and keep on high heat to boil off the water. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup.


5. At first the sap is clear and the bubbles are large.

6. As the water evaporates the liquid starts to have a yellow tinge which deepens the more it reduces.

7. Any foam is to be skimmed off (impurities). As you taste it you detect a sweet flavor but at this stage it is still quite watery and does not have the feel of a syrup consistency yet.
8. Right before the sugar content is the correct level to turn it to syrup the bubbles become small. If boiling indoors you may detect a different sound made from the boiling process.

9. The syrup suddenly bubbles up. If the liquid is high enough and the pot small enough it can very suddenly boil over if you are not careful. At this stage when you taste it, it tastes like maple syrup and it has that thick consistency of syrup. It will thicken up even more after being chilled.

10. Turn off heat.

11. If being sold commercially, it is always strained again to get tiny crystals of minerals out that they call sand. If these are left in they  may make the syrup seem grainy, and over time they may form larger crystals like rock candy. I was too lazy to bother with this step.

12. You can see from the photo below that the syrup is thick and when you move the pot it slowly moves across the bottom.


13. The color and flavor intensity and sweetness varies by the time of day the sap is collected and how soon it is made. It also depends on the weather conditions on that day. Here you can see how the color really darkened up.

11. Cool down and store in the refrigerator for immediate use. If it is to be stored long term use hot canning methods to preserve using appropriate containers and the correct process.

I'll be even more careful not to waste pure maple syrup or to take it for granted, now that I know how much sap and effort it takes to make it, as well as how the "crop" depends on the weather conditions. Last year the season lasted only 48 hours. This year the season me has been 12 days (so far).


If you overcook the syrup it is part way to a hard candy stage and can be too thick. It is darker in that form too. I did that just with the first batch.

Commercial syrup is graded by color into various grades. The A grade is most light and delicate. Grade B, my favorite, has a dark brown color and a strong maple taste.

Homemade syrup need not be graded.

My syrup came out light amber coled and delicate tasting. My thirteen year old son said it was the best tasting syrup he's ever had.

Unlike what some other people say I did not find this time intensive. With our propane gas cooktop set at high the boiling down went quickly. Due to the open kitchen we had there was never excessive steam. In fact, our home was very dry due to our home heating system being on and this made the house more humid and made it feel warmer.

In 2011 our family maple sugared for 14 days. The season started a few days before we began.


MaryAnneSturgeon said...

Thanks for this post! I used to go to a local park every year when I was younger to see how maple sugaring was done, and I have wished several times that I could take my kids to a similar event. It didn't occur to me until I read your post that I don't need to wait for a park to do it, we can do it on our own!

It doesn't sound intimidating at all from your descriptions, and the photos are really helpful. Thanks for giving me an idea for another really cool idea to incorporate into my kids' lessons!

sm said...

what books & websites made you think: it's really bad to boil it down indoors?
we tapped our one backyard maple a few years back and made syrup. we have a woodburning stove that we use during the shoulder months anyhow, so i placed the pot on the stove and let it simmer away. (we attached a hose to the spile and put that into an empty 2L pop bottle to collect the sap so no bugs or debris)

sm said...

? did that work ?
my comment disappeared before i properly signed in

Maggie said...

Great tutorial! This is our first year sugaring too. I have the hardest time remembering to sit by the stove when it gets near the end but otherwise it is fun and easier than I thought it would be. Do you cover your buckets, and if so with what?

ChristineMM said...

At first we used the bucket with a hinged top that let just some air in the sides. However we had a hard rain and so it needed more of a cover. We tried aluminum foil and various plastic bags as a cover but that didn't work as the wind blew it away. We did have gusts over 40 mph in that storm. Also the buckets fell off the hook in those high winds. Losing the sap collected in one day back when it was at the peak, was sad to see happen, a real waste of resources.

We then went to the homebrew store to buy plastic tubing that is fine for food to touch. We put the buckets on the ground. We put the lid all the way down on the bucket and drilled a hole in the lid big enough for the tube. We ran the tubing from the tap into the bucket lid.