I’m so excited to share this post in the Building Skills category! I know September seems terribly early to begin thinking about making maple syrup as the season doesn’t begin til late winter or early spring, but there’s absolutely a method to my madness, sweet friends. If you’re inclined to try to make maple syrup for fun or profit, I want to give you plenty of time to do your research and gather your supplies. It’s not a hard skill, but it does take time to find what you need and NOW is the season to mark the trees, while you can easily identify the tree by its leaves. In February, all those naked trees begin to look alike. So humor me and let’s talk about making some maple syrup next February or March!
We began making maple syrup as a hobby approximately 10 years ago, with 5 maple trees and an old box stove set up in the backyard.
It had never occurred to me that those 5 trees could provide anything for us but shade until a friend mentioned it off-handedly. I thought it was a mystical, complex procedure that the average individual couldn’t do….but how wrong I was! Admittedly, it’s quite time consuming, but it’s a very simple process of gathering the sap and boiling it to a syrupy consistency—and then boiling it a little longer if you want actual maple sugar. People have been tapping trees to make syrup for untold generations with the most rudimentary of materials and that skill is even easier to practice now with those materials being available for online purchase and free 2-day shipping! So let’s demystify the process and get you on the road to making your own maple syrup.
Identify Trees and Watch The Weather
To begin the process, you need to watch your local weather patterns. You’re looking for a pattern of days that are consistently above freezing and nights that drop into the 20’s. In our area, that typically happens in late February or early March, but it can happen as early as January and as late as April. Just watch the weather with that general pattern in mind. While you’re watching and waiting, pick out the trees that can be tapped. You need trees that are at least 12 inches in diameter. Any kind of maple tree can be tapped for sap, but sugar maples have the highest sugar content and make the best syrup.
Collect The Equipment
For tapping the trees, you need a drill, a drill bit, a hammer and splines and/or tubing.
For collecting the sap: Food safe buckets, clean juice or milk jugs or collection bags.
For boiling the sap into syrup: – a roasting pan on an outdoor woodstove, a turkey fryer, a kettle over a campfire, or a larger, purchased evaporator are all acceptable. For our first several seasons, we used an old woodstove we picked up at a yard sale for $20. Topped with a stainless steel chafing pan, it was an effective, inexpensive evaporator. Turkey fryers DO work well, but be aware that propane tanks are costly to refill. A word of warning for you: DO NOT even consider boiling sap indoors. You’ll end up with a sticky layer of steam all over your walls and enough moisture in the air to peel the wallpaper right off the walls. Seriously.
Tap The Trees
Tap the trees in the early spring, as daytime temperatures rise above freezing. Drill a hole the size of your spout, at a slight incline. We find it most effective to tap the S/SE side of the tree. Tap the spout into the hole firmly, hang the bucket, and put the cover on to keep out debris. I’ve read that people insert plastic tubing directly into the taphole and run the tubing into a bucket on the ground, though I’ve never tried it. We’ve always used a maple syrup spline with plastic tubing ran into a food-safe bucket with a lid.
Gather The Sap
Sap is perishable so you need to treat it like a perishable food: either refrigerate it or use it immediately. Weather-permitting, place your buckets or jugs in a snowbank on the north side of your house and the sap will keep quite well for a long time. Be sure to filter the sap through a colander or tea towel before boiling it to remove any bugs or debris.
Boil The Sap
Boil the sap until it reaches seven degrees above the boiling point of water or until it runs off a spoon in a sheet. I do the spoon-and-taste method…the consistency quickly changes from watery to thick and syrupy so pay close attention. If/when your syrup begins to foam and threatens to overflow the pan, a few drips of milk in the pan will reduce the foaming. Boiling is the longest part of the process, so be sure that you have plenty of fuel to keep your fire going. And never, ever leave your sap unattended. There was this incident once when I was boiling sap down in the garage over a propane cooker…and it boiled over…and oh Lardy does that stuff burn! There was smoke just a-rolling out of the garage. It was both embarrassing and reassuring when neighbors came over because they thought the house was on fire. I gave them syrup as a thank you gift.
Filter and Bottle the Syrup
After your syrup has reached the proper consistency, filter it again to remove any ‘niter’, that’s these weird grainy bits of minerals that can cause your syrup to look cloudy. Ladle the syrup into Mason jars, cap them and water-bath them for 10 minutes to ensure a good seal. Many places don’t water-bath their syrup, but I think it’s foolish to take chances on a product you’ve worked so long and hard on, right?! Store in a cool, dark place and refrigerate after opening.
Now, you do have one other option: if you choose, you can continue to simmer the syrup over low heat and you’ll end up with a product that looks very much like brown sugar. Maple sugar IS delish, just be careful as it burns very, very easily! Once it’s finished, you can use maple sugar as a sweetening just as you’d use brown or coconut sugar.
So that’s it, my friends. It’s a simple project, though it takes a good, long time to finish it. That said, with real maple syrup running $15/qt or higher in a GOOD season, it can prove to be a real money-making possibility for your homestead. We’ve given ½ pint jars of maple syrup for Christmas gifts and they’re always received well, so let me encourage you to try your hand at it next February! Til next time!