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Growing up in Vermont it’s hard to believe I had never made my own maple syrup. Until now. (Technically, my husband does all the work, but I’m present, so that counts, right?)
The basic premise is that you collect the slightly sweet sap the trees produce in late winter/early spring and then boil it down to sticky, sweet syrup.
This is our fourth year, and things are getting fancier every year.
When: When the days begin to grow warmer (read: above freezing) and the nights stay cold (below freezing), it’s time to make syrup. Usually, this starts in March and ends in April, but one year we started during the January thaw. And this year we started in late February, until things got cold again for a few weeks, then started up again mid-March. You never know.
What: First, you need to identify your maple trees. We tap both Sugar Maples and Red Maples, since they’re closest to our homesite. So far, so good!
And it doesn’t take much equipment to get started. The first couple of years, we tapped just 10 trees using spiles (affiliate link)and recycled milk jugs. We drilled a hole for the spile (being careful to stay at least 10″ away from old holes – it’s not good for the tree otherwise.) Then cut a hole near the mouth of the milk jug and just hung it off the spile. Surprisingly, it worked.
This year, we’ve upgraded to 15 trees tapped, using tubing and 5-gallon buckets. (Kind of like this, but we made our own. -> note, this is an affiliate link)
To finish your syrup, you’ll also need a thermometer, cheesecloth (or one of these fancy syrup filters that we’ll probably invest in for next year –> note these are all affiliate links), and something to store your syrup in once it’s done. We use canning jars (for everything).
How: Originally, we collected the sap in buckets and coolers until we had enough to boil. And enough is relative. Are you boiling in your kitchen? Then 10 gallons is probably enough. But if you’re boiling outside and are planning on making your yearly supply of syrup, you want to wait until you have a lot more sap.
The average ratio of sap to syrup is 40 gallons sap:1 gallon syrup. (We typically get 30:1, but this year it’s been 50:1, and we haven’t yet figured out why. Do you know?) Our new 5-gallon bucket system is an improvement in that we can leave the buckets where they are until it’s time to boil (which is when they are full), and when we boil we have anywhere between 40-90 gallons of sap ready to go.
Our evaporator (the technical term for the sap-boiling appliance) is a DIY setup of four hotel pans over a cinderblock fire box.
Boiling takes a long time. Like, a really long time. All day, and depending on how much sap you have, all night too. See why my husband does it all? Because I like to sleep!
Basically, you build your firebox, making sure the hotel pans can sit across the top. Then you get your fire roaring and quickly drop the hotel pans into place then fill them immediately with sap (otherwise they warp over the heat). I actually helped with that part.
Then you wait. And wait. Sometimes it’s nice to drink beer while you wait. I help with that, too.
As the water evaporates off, you add more sap, until eventually, all the sap is in the hotel pans, now greatly reduced. Then, you begin to consolidate the almost-syrup into fewer hotel pans (it’s a good idea to fill the unused hotel pans with water so they don’t warp on the heat).
We like to finish our syrup on the stove. It’s usually really late (dark) at this point. When you’re down to one hotel pan with a small enough amount to fit into your biggest pot (we actually use our roasting pan because the wide surface area evaporates faster), you’re ready to move things inside.
Sap becomes syrup when it reaches 7º above the boiling point of water. At our house, water boils at 210º, so it’s syrup at 217º. You do the math.
Right as your sap is turning into syrup it will foam wildly. Get excited. It’s time.
Extra Credit – Maple Candy: Last year we kicked it up a notch by making Sugar-on-Snow. Totally amazing.
This year, always ones to innovate on the model, we made maple sugar candy I think the kids got to eat some before it was gone? Maybe next year I’ll get my candy molds (affiliate link) out of storage and we’ll make it even fancier. Because pretty.
Have you made your own maple syrup? Got any tricks or tips to share with us?