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How to Make Maple Syrup

So you’re tired of paying high prices for that delicious maple syrup to smother pancakes with and you’ve decided it’s time to make you own? Well that’s great – after all its pure natural sugar without any additives.

The Sugar Maple (scientific name Acer Saccharum) is native to Canada and the northern states of the USA. The syrup from this tree is renowned worldwide for its wonderful taste that no artificial “maple” flavor can give to ordinary cane or corn syrup. Although making maple syrup can be a long process its totally worth it for the taste sensation.

If you want organic maple syrup then the particular stand of trees you are tapping from should not have been treated with any synthetic fertilizer or pesticides. Here’s a video showing you the steps from start to finish, but I do suggest you read right through this article because it will answer a lot of questions you may have:

I don’t have enough sugar maples – can I tap from other maples?

You can, but their sugar concentration will be lower resulting in more sap needing to be tapped to make sufficient maple syrup, however sugar concentrations can vary. The average is 2% but as you’ll see towards the end of this report.

that at the St John’s Campus of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Minnesota the sugar concentrations were much higher than average for all the trees tested – Sugar Maple 4.5%, Red Maple 4%, Amur Maple 3.9%, Silver Maple 3.4% and Box Elder 2.5%. It could just be the particular conditions at the site and time of year the trees were tested that yielded these unusual results.

worm farming

When will the sap flow?

Sap flow is dependent on weather conditions – the nights must be below freezing – that is 320 F or 00 C and the days must be warm – around 40 to 450 F Why is this temperature difference necessary? It’s because the maple has stored starch from the previous summer in the root tissue of the tree – as the temperatures rise it turns this starch back into sugar and it rises through the sap of the tree in the form of a clear liquid due to ground water being incorporated into the mix stored in the roots. If the sap is collected during warmer weather it will be darker.

The alternate thawing and freezing action allows the sap to flow due to the pressure. It’s like when they ask you squeeze a sponge repeatedly during the blood donation process – the alternate contraction and release keeps the blood flowing into the donor bag.

What size trees can I tap?

The tree should be 10 inches in diameter before tapping. If you are just beginning with maple tapping don’t go for the tube network – this is for people who are more advanced. One normally only does one tap per tree – the idea is that you use the maples sustainably – they need the sugar for their life processes too – and you want healthy trees to tap from next year – so don’t be tempted to extract more from the tree.

Where do I tap the tree and what do I use to make the hole?

You drill the hole into the side of the tree that receives the most sunlight. The tap should be tween one to four feet above the ground and should be above a root or below a branch to get the maximum flow. The tap should be made at a slightly upward angle so the sap can run down into your container and the hole should be about ½ an inch longer than the tap, also known as a spile, you are going to insert. You can use a cordless electric drill or simply a big nail and hammer, removing the nail once you have used it to make the hole.

Inserting the tap and affixing the bucket

Push the tap firmly into the hole you have made then attach the tube that leads to the bucket, or special plastic bag, which must be fastened around the tree. Make sure to use a bucket with a securely fitting cover, as you don’t want leaves and debris, rain or bugs getting into the sap. This will just take extra time in straining it before boiling.

How much sap will the average tree give me?

Well this depends on the size and type of tree as well as weather conditions, but a sugar maple should give around 10 gallons of sap per season.

Collecting the sap

As your buckets fill empty them into a storage container  – you can do this over a period of a week but not longer otherwise the sap will go off. You should boil the sap as soon as possible after collecting it.

Remove the taps

As soon as you have finished with sap collection for the season remove the taps from the trees. You do not need to put anything on the tree – the holes will seal themselves in time.

How much sap do I need to make a gallon of syrup?

The ratio is around 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. This is because the sugar content is on average around 2% – the lower the sugar content the more sap you will need.

Evaporator or pan?

Evaporators are expensive so it is probably better to boil a normal pan over a fire if you are starting out with maple syrup production. If you have access to plenty of trees and sap then perhaps think of investing in an evaporator if you are going to be selling the syrup.

Boiling Maple sap – indoors or outdoors?

It is best to boil outdoors as the clouds of steam vented during the process can make the whole house steamy and make your kitchen quite sticky unless you have a really good venting system.

Getting ready to boil outdoors

You can make a fire pit lined with stones in which to build your fire so wind doesn’t disturb your fire and the heat remains constant. Make sure you have plenty of firewood at hand as this can be long process lasting 12 or more hours – depending on how much sap you intend boiling down. Make sure you have a sturdy grid on which to rest you pans, so they are well supported. Having a pan tip and spill towards the end of the process can be heartbreaking! The fire flames shouldn’t be licking over the top of your pans – just reaching the bottom is where you want the flames to be.

Shape of pan

To allow for faster evaporation you need a flat wide container rather than the traditional pot shape otherwise you will be sitting waiting for hours on end for your syrup to evaporate down to the right consistency.

Type of pans to use

Use stainless steel pans. Aluminum will give an off taste to your syrup – and anyway cooking in aluminum containers is not good for your health as some studies have linked it to Alzheimer’s disease.

Copper is a great conductor of heat and a copper pan can be used for boiling. Just make sure that you have sufficient support under the pan as copper is a soft metal and under heat the bottom may bow unless it is properly supported. If you have sheets of copper and are planning on making your own pan then make sure to use lead free solder to join the seams. It’s also quite a job to clean copper – some people have started with copper then swopped to stainless steel simply because its easier to clean.

Filling the pans

Fill the pans to around 75% – otherwise the sap may boil over. As the moisture from the sap evaporates during the boiling process keep topping up at a steady rate. Eventually your pan should be around 50% full once most of the moisture has evaporated.

Keep an eye on them

This is one of those processes where the family or a bunch of friends need to be involved as you cannot leave the fire unattended – if the sap burns you have off-tasting syrup. You need to constantly be watching for “char” – that black stuff on the side of the pot mustn’t stay in the mix – use a small long handled strainer to remove any debris and the foam that comes to the top. When there is still a lot of water it will boil at 2120F or thereabout depending on your elevation above sea level. Do not let it go beyond this temperature!

Filtering the syrup

Before you go through the final stage of turning the sap into syrup you’ll need to filter it – you can make a sleeve from cheesecloth to filter it through or buy special cotton filter. Lots of people use a coffee filter. It’s important that you filter when the syrup is still very warm otherwise it will stick on the filter material.

The final stage

Once the syrup has been filtered you can reheat but make sure you keep an eye on the thermometer because when the sap reaches 2190F or 7 degrees above whatever the boiling point is for your elevation, you need to remove it from the heat immediately. If you let it remain on the fire it will get too thick and start to burn. If you prefer you can take your sap to boiling point outside then remove the pans to the indoor kitchen where you can watch the temperature more closely. Remember with an electric stove the plates stay warm so when it gets to 2190 F take it off the plate completely. With gas it’s easier because as soon as you turn off the flame the heat is gone.

How do I know when my syrup is ready?

The sap shouldn’t drip off the spoon – it should coat the spoon and slide off slowly – then you know you have the right consistency of syrup.

Sediment

You will see cloudy sediment that settles to the bottom of the syrup. This is not a problem but can be removed through filtering. It is referred to as sugar sand and is made up of minerals from the sap, but each time you reheat your maple syrup you need to re-filter as the heating process causes more to form. If you are selling your product and want to eliminate sediment then get a hydrometer and test with that.

If you are making for home use a little sediment will not hurt anyone – it settles to the bottom so you can just pour off and avoid this part.

Each batch is unique

Don’t feel you need to keep to a certain taste. Each batch you make will taste slightly different as it all depends on the time of the year the sap was taken, the soil type, the genetics of the tree, the weather, the sugar concentration and the process you followed in preparing the syrup – this is what makes maple syrup so special.

It’s a truly natural and unique product. The higher grades are lighter in color and come from the first sap taken in the season. As the season progresses the syrup will be darker and taste more maple-y and is graded lower – but some people prefer the darker syrup for its more robust flavor.

How long can I keep my maple syrup?

If you place it in clean sterilized canning jars and do the 10 minute boiling water processing bath, and store at room temperature your syrup should last through to the next season when you’ll be ready to make the next batch.

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About Jeanie Beales

Jeanie Beales
Traveler, photographer, writer. I'm eternally curious, in love with the natural world. How people can survive in harmony with nature has fueled my food safety and survival gardening practices. Over the years on numerous trips to wild places and cities I've learned all sorts of survival hacks, but there is always someone out there who can teach you a new trick so I remain an eternal student and forever humble.

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