Maple Syrup: “Sugaring” Simplified
The early European explorers found the Native Americans in early spring engaged in a puzzling practice. The whole air of the tribes was one of anticipation and celebration.
Wearing snowshoes to traverse the deep snow pack, these peoples cut slanting grooves through the outer bark of the Maple trees, or they stuck hollow Elderberry twigs into shallow holes pierced into the tree. What appeared to be water flowed copiously from these wounds and was caught and channeled by pieces of birch bark into bark pails sewn with hemlock rootlets.
These were emptied into larger skin, bark pots, or carved wooden troughs. Clean, smooth stones of fist-size were heated in fires and dropped with wooden tongs into theses containers of sap, bringing it to a boil. This process was kept up constantly.
When the women in charge of the operation deemed it ready, the now thick syrup was pored onto mats of clean pine needles to drain and harden.
The resulting blocks of precious Maple Sugar were stored carefully. All these early White explorers were unanimous in praising its fine taste, as well as the culinary expertise of the women in utilizing it to create sumptuous fare.
Maple Syrup was designated by letter grades by the industry to ensure consumers know what they are getting: They were A. B, and C.
The “A” grade is the lightest in color and most delicate in flavor. It usually is derived from the first flush of sap during the run. It is also the most expensive as you might imagine.
“B” is darker, opaquer, with a more robust flavor.
“C” is darker yet, almost black, and more strongly composed of off-flavors, and is normally derived from the end of the run. It is used in commercial products as Maple Flavoring more than alone as a sweetener.
Now, however, the industry has decreed all are Grade A, just with differences. (Personally, I think it smacks of marketing rather than clarity.)
Now: Enough Talk. Let’s make syrup!
It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, one tap will generally give 10 gallons of sap in a decent season, therefore: If you tap 4 Sugar Maples you can expect one gallon of syrup. (Two trees will give a half gallon of syrup, and one good tree should yield a quart of syrup).
You will need:
For each tree tapped; one tap, one bucket and a lid.
A drill, a drill bit to fit the tap, and a hammer to tap the spouts in.
Something to store the sap in until it is boiled down, like five-gallon buckets or a new, clean plastic garbage can.
A filter to strain the syrup; a sieve for the sap, and either a felt bag or cheesecloth to strain it.
A shallow pan to boil the sap off in.
Some sort of outdoor fireplace. Stacked Cinder Blocks work fine.
A candy thermometer and a tablespoon to check the syrup.
A wide, shallow pan and a 1 ½ gallon stockpot.
Jars for the syrup.
Wood to burn. (Not thick pieces, or chunks. You will need small diameter pieces, like kindling.)
Tapping: What Trees do I tap?
All Maple trees will produce syrup, not only the stately Sugar maple. Silver, Norway, and Red Maples, all will produce enough sap and with enough sugar content to be rendered into syrup. For that matter, the White, Yellow, and Black Birches also will, but not to the extent and with the flavor of the Maples.
But Sugar Maples give the best sap. Pick trees that are at least one foot in diameter, (no sense hurting the growth of young trees). Look on the south side of the tree for a dark streak running up the tree, usually over a large root or under a large branch; that’s a river of sap. Drill a hole there, at a slightly upwards angle, 1 ½ inches into good wood. (If there’s heavy bark that means drilling deeper, say 2 ½ inches). Clean out the shavings from the hole and tap the spout in the hole with a hammer until snug. Hang the bucket off the spout and put the lid on.
Gathering the sap:
Sap flows when the temperature is above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. Check your pails often: On good day two gallons of sap can gush out. Empty the sap into your storage container(s), and replace the bucket on the tree. You will need to store that sap in a cool place to avoid spoilage. Spoiled sap looks unclear, slightly milky. It’s okay if it freezes, if you remove the ice (it’s mostly just water) there’ll be less boiling needed later, even if it does waste a little sugar. At least once a week boil down what sap you have in order to avoid spoilage (more often if the weather stays warm).
When the weather stays above freezing at night the sap flow will end.
And don’t collect sap after the tree’s buds have swollen and are about to open: That sap will make a bitter syrup.
A wide shallow stainless-steel pan such as used at a buffet table makes an excellent evaporator.
You can use an outdoor fireplace, make a quick one from cinder blocks or, I suppose, use a gas grill.
The idea is to have a hot fire constantly under the sap, which should be kept be under two inches deep in the pan.
Keep the sap at a rip-roaring boil. This means attending the fire constantly and feeding it wood a bit at a time to keep that fire roaring.
Strain off the scum from time to time, and as the sap evaporates, add more fresh sap.
Do not boil down indoors on a stove to start! Only boil indoors for the last, finishing, stage.
If you use wood, keep it kindling sized. With a heaped wheelbarrow of such wood you can boil down enough sap in three hours or so to make a quart of syrup.
Watch the sap: When it is getting thicker, the bubbles will get closer to each other.
Dip out a spoonful from time to time and let it cool, then watch it as you pour it back into the pan. You will see it becoming thicker.
Rather than risk losing it once it looks thicker, take it off the fire, strain it into a gallon and a half stockpot, and now bring it inside to finish on the stove.
Bring the pot to a boil on the stove indoors.
Do not leave it at this point! Things happen fast!
Keep checking spoonfuls and watch the bubbling. For those of you who insist on measurements: When the sap is 7 degrees over the temperature of boiling water it’s ready.)
If the foam suddenly explodes up, drop a tiny tab of butter in the pot: The foaming will disappear instantly.
When the cooled syrup on the spoon looks like syrup, take the pot off the heat.
If you’re going to pass it through a filter bag, now is the time while it’s still hot. Pour the finished syrup into clean jugs or canning jars and seal.
As if You Need Ideas on How to Use Your Syrup:
Besides the traditional pancakes, waffles, or french toast:
Make a delightfully sprightly salad dressing with the Maple syrup, stone-ground mustard, and Mayonnaise.
Add some to a salad made of fresh strawberries, diced apples, and walnuts.
Add it to oatmeal, along with a dollop of butter, and a pinch of salt.
Pour it over ice cream; (especially Vanilla or Butter Pecan. We strongly recommend Haagen Dazs by the way!))
Make a glaze for Baked Ham or Chicken Breasts with Mustard and Maple Syrup.