Why in the world would anyone think they could make maple syrup this time of year?, you might ask. Well, my reasoning behind this post is: “tell them now and they’ll be prepared in February or March of next year”. Maybe??
As you know if you read my profile, I love to do things the “old” way and I am fortunate enough to live on a farm that allows me to do a lot of those things. One is making maple syrup for our family and friends. Why make it when you can buy it at the stores? Because, it tastes so much better and the gratification of know ing you can do it yourself!! We do sell some on years of good sap flow.
If you have a maple tree in your back yard you can make your own just like we do (in a condensed version)! It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup or 20 gallons makes two quarts. You could cook it off on the stove in your home. You don’t have to have a sugar house to make your own syrup.
Here’s the instructions we use to make it in the sugar house with pictures and instructions:
First, watch for the right time and to do that you have to have a sugar maple tree of at least 15″-20″ across the girth of the tree (not circumference). In late February or early March wait for very sunny days and below freezing nights. When this happens the sap will begin to move up the tree from the roots. They’re sucking water out of the ground up through the body of the tree.
Second, prepare your sap taps! The first ones I ever made, my Dad showed me how by cutting a 6″ limb from an elderberry bush. We carved all the bark and stuck a crochet needle through the little limb pushing the soft bark through to the other end. This limb is very soft and porous and will easily push out. You don’t have to wait until spring to do this. In the fall when the berries and leave have fell off the limbs you can cut the limbs then and make the tubes. BUT, you can also buy the taps (sometimes called spiles) from old country stores (Lehmans) and I have found some at hardware stores or maple festivals. BUT, if you are making your own, continue on to clean out the 6″ limb until it’s fairly smooth and has a good hole for the sap to drain through. We also use these plastic plumbing tees that allow us to hang the bucket from just like the metal spiles. The tees are much cheaper! Both last for a long time when cared for and the tees are easier to clean at the end of the sap season.
Next your going to drill two – three holes using a 3/8″ bit (match the drill bit to your tap) about 3/4″ to 1″ into the trees and about 3′ to 4′ off the ground. DON’T WORRY, THIS DOES NOT HURT THE TREE! The holes heal over within a month after the sap season.
Place the tap into the tree making sure it’s tight. If it’s not tight the sap will leak out around the tap and your wonderful sap is creeping down the side of the tree instead of out the tap into the bucket.
If the trees have thawed enough and the sun is hitting them the sap will immediately start dripping from the spout/tap (spile). Just for fun, stick your finger under the drip and get a taste. It will taste just like cold water. It’s after the cooking that it starts to taste sweet. Also, at this stage it will be somewhat sticky. Let it drip all day and if it’s a good day ( below freezing the night before and very sunny come morning) you might want to check that bucket under the tap several times during the day. Once the sap starts running good, your gallon bucket could be full and running over within a couple hours.
We use metal coffee cans for the gathering buckets. I use a nail to tap a hole in the top on each side and run a thin wire through and knot for the bail of the bucket. The gallon cans aren’t so heavy that they’ll pull the taps out of the tree if they get full and they will get full and run over. We keep old milk cans between the trees for holding the sap each day and we keep a milkcan on the ATV for gathering when the trees are some distance apart. At the end of the day we empty all the cans into the big holding tank.
This part of the work is probably the hardest! I work out of the home all day and it keeps my hubby quite busy emptying buckets all day long.
The taps will freeze up during the night and that’s okay. Usually by 9:00 A.M. on sunny mornings the taps are dripping again and by noon on really warm up days he will have to empty all the buckets at least three or four times. We usually tap 10 – 12 trees each spring and if I was at home to help, we could easily double that. A few years back we bought a 250 gallon water tank and when the sap is running good, it’s full in usually about 7 – 10 days. Then it’s time to start making syrup.
Did I mention that a week prior to all the gathering we bring in a pickup load of four foot firewood for the firepit. Once the sap is gathered, hubby gets the fire started in the sugar house and starts pouring the sap in the pan over the firepit. We have all of this under roof because most of the time the wind is howling, it’s snowing, it’s raining, very cold and occasionally a beautiful day. Here’s a couple pictures of the sugarhouse.
As soon as the fire gets started, the sap is poured into all three panels of the sugar pan. This is done quickly so as not to scorch the pan or burn the sap.
Now the cooking begins!!! We have time now to fill up more milkcans or clean out the ones we’ve used. It all depends on how frisky everyone is and how good the sap is still running. The cooker is watched carefully once it starts boiling and the foam that builds up on the top is dipped off and thrown into a bucket. The foam can make it strong but the honeybees love it and we share those leftovers with them for extra food at this time of year. As the sap cooks off it will become thick and it’s moved from the larger panels of the pan into the smaller panel at the end of the pan where it gets thicker and thicker and sweeter and sweeter.
Reading this and looking at the pictures can be deceptive. This whole process of cooking can take as much as two days of working day and night. Shift work between all of us keeps everyone from getting tired too soon and making mistakes or deciding to take the syrup off too soon!! As the sap cooks and boils down, it is moved into the smaller pan gradually and watching the smaller panel is very critical. After about 100 gallons of sap has been cooked and moved it is left to cook quickly and to thicken. When we begin it runs out of the dipper like water but near the end of the process it runs out like thin syrup and it gets sweeter the thicker it gets. While this is happening in the smaller panel, the other two panels are kept full and cooking. The clear sap will start turning a beautiful amber-to-topaz color and we just keep adding the sap while the smaller panel syrup is ready to take out of the pan.
There is a plug and drain line at the end of the small panel and we have a very large stainless steel pot ready to drain the finished syrup into. We don’t use any thermometers, hydrometers or fancy gadgets to test the syrup. We’ve just learned to take it off by the consistency and taste of the syrup along with the color. This process of taking off the syrup is quick with several hands helping. The syrup must be moved quickly, plug the hose, and pour boiling sap from the larger pans to keep the pan from scorching. If it scorches we’ll have black burn flakes floating in the syrup at finish.
Once the first batch is in the pot I take it to the house and strained four or five times through 10-15 layers of cheesecloth and set aside to cool. This is also a fun part of the process because I have made fresh bread the day before, gathered a couple dozen eggs and prepare to make a delicious french toast and serve to all the helpers. Of course, everyone pours lots of “fresh from the sugar house” maple syrup over their toast.
While the second batch is cooking in the sugar house, we let the first batch cool and settlement from the batch settles at the bottom of the stainless steel pot. The settlement is actually maple sugar that can be separated at the end of the process, pour into a sheet pan and left to harden for snacking later. Talk about a sugar rush!!! It looks like harden brown sugar and tastes much like it too. Each time the syrup cools and settles, we run the syrup through cheesecloth again and keep the “sugar candy” separate. After three or four more heatings on the stove and three or four strainings, the syrup is ready to can. It will be boiling hot when it comes off the stove and poured in the sterilized jars. The jars are capped and the boiling syrup seals the jars.
We make sure that everyone that helped with the process is sent home with a jar of syrup, we sell better than half of the jars and we keep some for family/personal use for the rest of the year or until the next season. I’ll drop a few more pics of the processing just for grins and giggles!