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Making maple syrup is done during a time of the year when there are very few other outdoor activities that can be done. It's too early to start gardening, and too late for ice fishing. For me, it's the first good reason to get outdoors in a couple of months.
If you live in the swath of North America that covers the US mid-west
from Wisconsin and Illinois through the east coast from Maine to
Virginia down into Kentucky, Tennessee, and up into the lower portions
of eastern Canada, you have the opportunity to make your own maple
syrup. In late winter to early spring before trees start to bud out, the
sap begins to flow. When the daytime temperatures start to creep up
above the freezing mark, and return to below freezing at night, it's
maple syrup making time. In southern Indiana, that's usually late
February through mid March.
In a nutshell making maple syrup consists of drilling a hole in a maple tree, collecting the sap that runs out, and boiling off the excess water in the sap until you have syrup. It's a bit more detailed that that, but basically - that's it.
There are several species of maple trees that can be tapped for syrup making, but they don't all rate equally in syrup production. Sugar maples and black maples are very closely related species, and these two species are the best for sap production due to a higher sugar concentration - usually around 2-3%. Silver and red maples can be tapped as well, but the sugar concentration is much lower (around 1%), and takes more sap and more boiling to get an equal amount of syrup.
By comparison, finished syrup is about 66% sugar, so it takes roughly 10 gallons of sap to make 1 quart of syrup. Be ready, it takes a lot of boiling.
If you're not sure what a sugar maple looks like, it's best to use a tree identification guide to locate your best candidates in the summer, for tapping the following season. My favorite tree identification guide is the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. Use the eastern region edition for identifying sugar maples.
Here are a few basic supplies you will need for making maple syrup:
-cordless drill or bit & brace hand drill
-7/16" drill bit
-containers with a bail or handle to collect the sap in (1 gallon minimum)
-tapping spouts (also known as a spile)
-larger bucket to carry the sap back to where you will boil it.
-large pan for boiling the sap
-heat source (a kitchen stove for small batches or an outside source for larger batches)
-containers to store the finished syrup.
Once the weather conditions are right, begin by determining how many taps you can put in a tree. Measure the circumference (distance around the trunk) of the tree at chest height. Divide the circumference by 3.14(Pi) to get the diameter of the tree. This is an official measurement used in the forestry business, referred to as DBH (Diameter at Breast Height)
A tree must be a minimum of 10-12 inches diameter before you can tap it at all. Tapping a smaller tree may take away too many nutrients, and weaken or kill the tree. If you have a healthy tree with no damage or dead wood follow these guidelines for tapping your trees. If the diameter is 10-15 inches, use only 1 tap, 16-20 inches, use no more than 2, 21-25 inches, use no more than 3, 25 inches or larger, use no more than 4.
If the tree does have damage or dead wood, use less taps,or don't tap it at all.
Only place taps into healthy white wood. If the drill shavings come out dark or black, move to a new location.
Drill a 7/16" hole 1.5 to 3 inches deep into the trunk of the tree with a slightly upward angle. If the time is right the sap will begin running almost immediately.
Clear out all shavings, and place the spout spile in the hole. Tap it lightly with a hammer to seat it. Some spiles come with a tool that you can use to help with seating.
Hang your collecting bucket or bag on the spile and make sure that the sap is dripping from the spile into the collection container.Collect the sap at least once a day. Depending on weather conditions, you won't get much or any sap on some days, and your containers will be full or overflowing on others. Perfect conditions are a bright sunny day with a light breeze, and daytime temperatures in the upper 30s to lower 40s, following near or just below freezing temperatures at night. Colder, overcast days will produce little sap. Temperatures much warmer than that for several days will force the buds to swell. Stop collecting sap when buds swell, because the sap will take on a different (unpleasant) flavor.
My method of boiling sap may be a bit unconventional, but if you are tapping a couple of trees it works fine.
Every day after I have collected the sap (I get 1/2 to 2 gallons on the best days), I pour it through a coffee filter into a 2 gallon sauce pot.
I then boil the sap on the kitchen stove until it tastes very sweet, but is still watery in texture. Figure on reducing a gallon down to a pint. The color will be yellow, but not yet the beautiful amber color of finished syrup. There's not a precise point where you stop, close counts. Each day's batch will likely be a little different.
Place the reduced sap in a sealed container and refrigerate. After a week or so of collecting and reducing sap, It's time to finish the syrup.
NOTE - If you have wallpaper in your house, I don't recommend boiling sap indoors. Boiling off that much water puts a lot of humidity into the air, and may cause the wallpaper to peel away from your walls. This same boiling method could be used outdoors as well. A gas grill or turkey fryer could as easily be used, especially if you have larger batches.
The pro's use a large capacity gas or wood fired pan to reduce their sap to syrup in an open building called a sugar shack. This pan is fed by float valves from a reservoir tank where the collected sap is stored. Often they will collect sap from hundreds of trees. The woods where they collect sap is referred to as a "sugarbush". If you ever get an opportunity to see a large scale maple syrup operation, make sure to go - it's really interesting.
At the end of a week's sap collecting and reducing, I'll pour all of the reduced sap back into the pan and finish the job. This is the final stage in making maple syrup.
Begin boiling just like you did with the sap. As the sap starts to reduce more and more, you have to watch for foaming. If your syrup does start foaming, add a single drop of fresh (not used) cooking oil to the pan, and foaming will stop almost immediately.
Finished syrup boils at 7°F above the boiling point of water or 219°-220°F. You can use a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature of the sap as you reduce it down further and further. Personally, I just watch it closely, until the consistency is is right (syrupy).
Professionals use a hygrometer to measure the specific gravity to determine the sugar content of their syrup, because it's not "officially" maple syrup until the sugar content reaches 66%. The stuff can't be sold as maple syrup until it reaches that level. For home use, it doesn't have to be that precise. If it's thick and sweet you can call it maple syrup.
During the pioneer days from New England through the mid west, settlers would collect maple sap in the spring and fall, not only for making maple syrup, but also for "boiling sugar". They would boil the sap all the way down past syrup to the point that they made sugar crystals.
For the settlers in remote areas, this was their only source of sugar, and what they made had to last them the entire year. Like many of the other "living off the land" skills that the European settlers learned, this knowledge came to them from the Native Americans.
Making maple syrup is a time consuming activity that usually lasts for 3-4 weeks in the early spring. It's not a difficult or demanding task, it just takes time. Fortunately, during this time there isn't a lot of other outdoor activities that need to be done, so there's usually time to spare. If you have access to a sugar maple tree or two, give it a try. You won't be disappointed with the results.