In February, when winter shows a few signs of being tired out – and yet it can still drop cold weather and snow on you in a heartbeat – it is time to tap those sugar maples and make some syrup! Maple syrup is delicious, and a real treat you can make from scratch right on your homestead.
It’s an easy and fun pastime, and tapping just a few sugar maples can keep you supplied with maple syrup for the rest of the year. Let’s look at how you can make some maple syrup on your homestead this winter, step by step!
First, however, we should take a quick look at what maple syrup is, and where the process of making the syrup actually came from.
All About the Sap
So What is Maple Syrup?
Maple syrup is a sweetener derived from concentrated maple sap – the liquid starch that maple trees produce to provide energy for growth. The sugar maple, acer sacharrinum, is the most common maple tree tapped for sap, although the black and red maples are tapped sometimes as well.
These trees produce sap containing sugar and other minerals to provide energy for the tree during the spring and summer. This sap is prized for the delicious maple syrup it can be boiled down to produce.
This sap flows in the trees for several weeks in late winter. Maple trees can be “tapped” at this time by drilling a shallow hole and inserting a small hollow tube, or spile. The sap will drip slowly out of the tube, where it can be caught in some sort of covered bucket.
Once enough sap has been collected, it can be boiled down to concentrate it into maple syrup. Boiling down 40 gallons of sap generally yields about one gallon of syrup, although this can vary depending on local conditions.
Early Origins to Modern Day
North American indigenous tribes harvested maple sap long before the arrival of Europeans. It was prized as both a starch as well as for its flavor. By the late 17th Century, European explorers and settlers had learned the secrets of the sugar maple, and were tapping the trees themselves. European colonies in the north especially appreciated having a ready supply of sugar that they did not have to import.
By the mid to late 19th Century, cane and other sugars became more popular than maple syrup as sweeteners in American kitchens. However, maple syrup production continued, and new technologies and techniques continued to be developed to produce it.
Metal spiles replaced wooden tubes, and flat pan evaporators increased the efficiency at which the sap could be boiled down. Larger evaporators, and other high tech processes came online to produce syrup cam online as well. In Canada and in parts of the northeastern United States, maple syrup remained an important agricultural product.
Maple Syrup Today
Small scale maple syrup production is enjoying something of a renaissance these days. Drive through any small New England town in mid-February, and you are likely to see buckets attached to every single maple tree in sight! And for good reason.
Maple syrup is a top seller at farmers markets, usually for handsome prices. And a few gallons of maple syrup can go a long way on the homestead, too; you might make it a whole year with your own syrup, as long as your family doesn’t eat waffles and pancakes for breakfast every single day!
Step by Step to Fresh Maple Syrup
People have been making maple syrup in North America for hundreds of years; if you’re a homesteader, here are the steps you can follow to make a few gallons of your own maple syrup.
Boiling the Sap
There are many techniques when it comes to boiling sap. For our purposes, we will go with the most basic and least expensive method to get you started. Here is the equipment you’ll need to boil your sap into syrup.
- Large Pot. You’ll want to use a three to five-gallon pot to boil your sap down to syrup.
- Heat Source. You will need some sort of heat source, like a burner on a stove, an outdoor gas cooker, or a woodstove, that can bring your large pot of maple sap to a boil. If you decide to boil your sap on your kitchen stove, be forewarned: sap can make a sticky mess, and unwatched pots are prone to boil-overs.
- Strainer. You will need a metal strainer to skim out the foam that accumulates on your boiling sap.
- Thermometer. You will want either an analog or digital thermometer to check the temperature of your sap while it is boiling.
- Cheese Cloth. You will use a cheese cloth to filter your syrup.
- Large Jar with Funnel. You will use the large jar and funnel to help filter your syrup.
Outdoor Gas Cooker. An outdoor propane burner, like the type used for a turkey fryer, can help boil your sap more rapidly. However, it will take a great deal of propane to boil down your sap. Make sure you follow all safety instructions when using one of these burners, and never use an outdoor burner inside your home or garage.
Second Pot. You can use a secondary pot to warm up your sap on a woodstove or other heat source. Adding heated sap to your primary pot of boiling sap will help speed up the overall boil down process, since you won’t have to wait as long for the primary pot to begin boiling again if you add sap that is already hot.
Sap Filters. You can purchase sap filters, which allow you to strain your sap and remove any minerals or other items prior to boiling it. This helps your make your final maple syrup clearer and sediment free.
Fill your large pot to within an inch of the rim, and place it over high heat. Bring it to a boil, gradually adding all of the sap you have available as the sap continues to evaporate. Use your strainer to remove the foam that accumulates at the top of the pot occasionally.
You can lose track of time and gallons when you are boiling sap; to avoid confusion, you should start each day of boiling with a goal. Remember, it takes forty or so gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
If you decide to boil twenty gallons of sap on a given day, that means you will end up with approximately ½ gallon of maple syrup at the conclusion of boiling. Starting with a goal will help you keep track of when your sap is close to becoming syrup.
As your sap continues to boil down, it will become darker and darker. When you get closer and closer to your target amount of syrup, you should continually monitor the temperature with your thermometer.
Sap becomes syrup at approximately 7 degrees Fahrenheit above the boiling point of water. Since the boiling point of water can vary depending on your elevation, check to determine what the boiling point is for water wherever you live.
Here at our homestead, water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, so when our sap’s temperature hits 219 degrees, it is syrup. It will have a slightly thicker consistency at this point, and obviously be very sweet!
strain your syrup through a cheese cloth
Once your maple sap becomes syrup, remove it from your heat source and let it cool down for about five minutes or so. You will filter the syrup next, and filtering works best when the syrup is still warm.
After a few minutes, place your funnel on top of your large jar, and line it with your cheese cloth. Carefully pour your warm syrup through the cheese cloth into the jar. Your syrup may have some “sugar sand in it” mineral that are contained in the sap along with the sugars; they are harmless, but can discolor the syrup or make them gritty. The cheese cloth will help you strain them out.
Once you have strained your syrup, let t cool down, and it is ready to enjoy!
Here is a great video illustrating how to boil your sap down to syrup:
Maple Syrup Making Tips
by Tara Dodrill
1. It takes approximately 40 parts of sap to 1 part water to make syrup. If 10 gallons of sap are collected, you should get a yield of 1 quart to one gallon of syrup.
2. Boiling the sap to remove the excess water is the first step in a simple but precise process.
3. A massive amount of steam is generated when the tree sap is being boiled down to syrup. For this reason, it is always recommended to boil the sap outdoors.
4. If you must make your sap indoors, only do small batches at a time, and make sure the window is open or other good ventilation practices are being adhered to throughout the process.
5. To boil the sap outdoors, many tappers use cast iron cauldrons, clean barrels or metal tubs that can be placed directly on an open flame.
6. You can also dig a pit, and use metal rods and bricks to built support to hold the cauldron or tub being used (if weather conditions make it unsafe or unfeasible to keep a fire going above ground).
7. If boiling small batches of sap, you could also boil out the excess liquid using your cookout grill.
8. No matter what boiling method you use, the sap must be stirred constantly to avoid scorching.
9. The pot being used to boil the sap should be filled approximately three-quarters of the way full with the collected liquid. The sap should boil down until the liquid left in the pot is only one-fourth to one-half the way full.
10. Once the first portion of the sap has boiled down, more sap can be added.
11. If the sap starts to boil over the lip of the pot, carefully wipe a little butter around the lip of the pot or pour in a single cap full of cooking oil to tame down the boiling.
12. As it boils, the once clear sap will being to have a golden hue.
13. After it turns golden, the sap still roughly have a water-like texture, but it is not time to pour the sap into a smaller pot for further processing.
14. You can continue to work the sap outdoors, but the steam issue will no longer be a problem, and the rest of the processing can be completed indoors.
15. Put the smaller pot of sap onto your chosen heat source and continue stirring to prevent scorching while it boils down to a typical syrup consistency.
16. Use the spoon trick to check the consistency of the syrup to tell if it’s done. Dip a spoon into the mixture and tilt is slightly sideways. If it slides off quickly and easily, the syrup is not thick enough yet.
17. There could be a little bit of sediment left in the syrup when it is done. Some folks don’t mind this at all, but if you do, use a coffee filter or cheesecloth to pour a SMALL amount of syrup through at a time to remove the sediment. Typically, once the syrup is refrigerated for at least 12 hours, the sediment sinks to the bottom of the container. It might be a whole lot easier to remove the unwanted material after it settles.
18. Your homemade syrup should be stored in a Mason or similar container with a firm-fitting lid. The syrup usually can keep up to 60 days in the refrigerator after it has been opened… to the delight of your entire family. The syrup can also be frozen to extend its shelf life.
Preserving Your Maple Syrup
If you only make small batches of maple syrup at any given time, it may make sense to just refrigerate it. It will last several weeks in the refrigerator; if your family uses maple syrup on pancakes, waffles, and in their oatmeal, it likely won’t last very long anyway!
If you do plan to preserve your syrup for long term storage, it takes just a little bit of extra preparation. The best way to store maple syrup is by canning it. The process for canning syrup is slightly different than canning other products, like jam or pickles.
Because boiling the sap after packing the jars (the water bath canning process used when canning pickles, and jams) could change the color of your syrup, you will instead heat the syrup up prior to putting it into the jars.
Here is the equipment you will need:
- Canning Jars, with Rings and Lids.
- 2 Large Pots. Use the first large pot to boil and sterilize your canning jars. Use the second pot to heat your finished syrup up to the proper canning temperature.
- 1 Small Pot. Use the small pot to boil and sterilize your jar lids.
- Ladle. Use the Ladle to fill your jars with syrup.
- Canning Funnel. You will use the canning funnel to help you transfer the syrup from the pot to the jars.
- Small Cloth. Use the small cloth to wipe the rims of your jars after you fill them with syrup.
- Large Towel. You will cover your jars with the large towel after you pack and store them.
- Thermometer. You will use the same thermometer you used to check your sap’s temperature to ensure it’s the right one for canning.
While you are boiling down your syrup, simultaneously clean and boil your mason jars in a large pot, and your canning lids in the small pot. After your jars boil, remove them from the water and set them aside. Leave your lids in the pot, but turn the heat down to low.
Filter your maple syrup as described above. Then, place the filtered syrup back in a large pot, and heat it to 180 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit; use your thermometer to monitor the temperature.
Once the syrup is at the desired temperature, ladle it into the jars up to ½ inch from the rim, wipe the rims with your cloth, place a lid on the jar, and seal it hand tight with a ring. Place the jars in a cupboard or pantry, and cover them with a large cloth.
After 24 hours, remove the towel and inspect your jars. They should have sealed. Test them by pushing down on the center of the lid; there should be no “give” whatsoever in a sealed jar. If you determine that one of your jars did not seal, refrigerate it and use it immediately. You can store your sealed jars of maple syrup for up to twelve months at room temperature. Whenever you do open one of your sealed jars up, make sure you refrigerate it afterwards.
Here is a great video illustrating how to preserve your maple syrup by canning:
Boiling Larger Batches
Boiling maple sap into syrup is a straightforward affair. The process described above is for homesteaders who intend to make a few gallons of syrup, mostly for personal use. If you decide that you want to make more syrup in a given year, it is easy to do, with a little bit of work or a larger investment. You will just need to tap more trees, and invest in a more efficient way to boil larger amounts of sap.
While commercial evaporators are out of the price range of most homesteaders, you can purchase smaller evaporators for home use. There are several models available starting at $1,200 or so; you can also purchase kits to make small evaporators out of clean 55 gallon barrels.
Alternatively you can build your own. Some people build impromptu evaporators outside using cinderblocks and flat pans. These are relatively cheap, and can allow you to boil much more sap than you ever could on a stove.
Here is a great video of someone who used cinderblocks to make a “rocket stove” maple syrup evaporator:
Another innovative DIY maple syrup evaporator can be fashioned out of an old metal filing cabinet, along with a few additional parts and hardware. It takes a little bit more mechanical know-how to make this evaporator, but it works extremely well.
Here is a video showing the step by step process for making a file cabinet maple syrup evaporator:
There are many other innovative designs out there for DIY evaporators. Once you decide to boil more sap, choose one, build it, and test it out!
Using Your Syrup
If you took the time to boil down hundreds of gallons of sap into maple syrup, chances are you know exactly how to use it! Yes, maple syrup is great on waffles and pancakes. It can liven up a dull bowl of oatmeal, too.
I personally like to put a teaspoon (or two) in my coffee each morning as well. But you can put your maple syrup to use in other ways, too. Here are some uses for maple syrup you may not have thought about.
Glaze Those Squash and Carrots
You can give great flavor to roasted vegetables like butternut squash or carrots. Simply drizzle some of your home made maple syrup on them prior to roasting them in the oven. The maple flavor will bake in, and they will be a perfect complement to a delicious fall meal.
Maple Old Fashioned
If you want to personalize a classic cocktail with your home made maple syrup, go ahead and pour a maple old fashioned! In a glass, add ½ ounce of your maple syrup to two ounces of good bourbon, ½ ounce of orange juice, ¼ ounce of lemon juice, 1 ½ ounces of seltzer water, and some bitters. Stir well, add ice, and serve.
You can make a delicious balsamic vinaigrette with your maple syrup. In a bowl, simply combine one tablespoon of your syrup with ¼ cup of olive oil, two teaspoons of balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste. Use a whisk to thoroughly mix all the ingredients, then place in a flask for use. This dressing will go great with those greens you pick from your garden!
The delicious syrup you are making does not need any other ingredients added, but you can add a little bit of cinnamon, honey, or ginger to their syrup recipe to give is a slightly different and equally yummy, flavor.
Maple syrup can be used in place of sugar in both cooking and baking recipes. The syrup adds both an additional sweet taste and moisture to the recipe, especially if you are making a dough. When replacing either brown or white sugar with syrup, use 2/3 of a cup of the syrup for every 1 cup of sugar the recipe called for originally.
You should also reduce any liquid ingredients in the recipe by up to ¼ of a cup. Typically, lowering the baking temperature by about 25F yields the best results while using syrup as a sugar substitute.
When the sap is running, you should make some delicious maple syrup. Boiling sap into syrup is a great way to put the whole family to work making something you can all enjoy in the months ahead. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and tap those trees today!
When Tom Harkins is not busy doing emergency repairs to his 200 year-old New England home, he tries to send all of his time gardening, home brewing, foraging, and taking care of his ever-growing flock of chickens, turkey and geese.