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, it’s totally worth it for the taste sensation.
If you want organic, pure maple syrup, then the particular stand of trees you are tapping from should not have been treated with any synthetic fertilizer or pesticides.
These can be absorbed through the tree roots and end up in the tree sap that you’re using.
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…
Tapping Maple Trees
If you’ve ever wondered where your maple syrup comes from, well, the Maple Belt consists of the North Eastern section of North America.
It goes south towards Pennsylvania and as far west as Ontario, Canada and is where the world supply of maple syrup is produced.
Tapping a maple tree is the only way to harvest the sap in a sustainable way that does not impede the functions of the trees. Here are some considerations to keep in mind when you are starting your harvest.
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%.
The only exception would be the red maple and it is commonly used for obtaining sap as well as the sugar maple. It’s important to remember that red maples like to grow at lower elevations whereas sugar maples can be found at higher elevations.
In the summer they are easily told apart by their leaves as the red maple will always have a serrated type leaf.
In the winter you should pay attention to the leaf buds as they are distinctly different. Sugar maple leaf buds are more compact and sharp where the red maple has round, plump buds.
If you have a terrible memory and don’t want to forget which tree is which species, you can identify them once, mark them with a flag of some sort and then not have to worry about it when you go to harvest the sap closer to the springtime.
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 0F to 45 0F. Why is this temperature difference necessary?
This means that the entire maple syrup season really only lasts between the middle of February until mid April.
With such a short window you can start to see why it can be an expensive product to purchase. It also means that you need to be well prepared to make the most out of the time window that you have.
The best way to be prepared is to keep an eye on your local long-term weather forecast which can give you an idea of when the temperatures will start to fall within the threshold for harvesting.
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 between one and 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.
Always drill into healthy wood and avoid the rotting stuff. This could affect the sap flow as the tree is already trying to heal that damaged area.
Don’t blow into the newly drilled hole as the bacteria from your mouth can be introduced into the sap. While any bad bacteria can be eliminated by boiling it’s just good practice to not blow into 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
You’ll want to check the trees at least once a day to make sure that the sap is running properly, there are no issues with the containers, and to watch how much sap has been accumulated.
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 the 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.
If there is a fast drip after you remove the tap then you can plug the hole up with a piece of bark or crunched up leaves.
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.
Making Maple 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 a 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 your 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.
The added surface area means that more of the water can evaporate at once.
Type of pans to use
Use stainless steel pans. Aluminum will give an off taste to your syrup. Heating aluminum for long periods of time can potentially leach unwanted chemicals into the final product.
This is more of a recommendation, as you can use deeper containers as well, such as these made of cast iron, particularly if you’re processing larger batches:
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 swapped to stainless steel simply because it’s 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 with additional sap at a steady rate.
Eventually, your pan should be around 50% full once most of the moisture has evaporated.
Keep an eye on the maple syrup
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 watch 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!
The maple syrup is considered done when it reaches 66% sugar. Anything below that and it will have too much water, causing it to spoil.
If you go higher than 66% then you start getting into things like crystallization, which, while it has its applications, is not what you want in a syrup.
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 a 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.
Always make sure that you’re using clean containers as maple syrup can go moldy if too much water is left in it. Sanitization can be achieved through boiling the containers in water for up to 10 minutes.
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.
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.
Best Maple Syrup Flavor Combinations And Variations
The traditional taste of maple syrup is unique in its own right and is a tradition in many communities. Its simple sweetness makes for a great foundation that complements a lot of other flavors. Here are some easy twists that can take your maple syrup to the next level in taste.
Vanilla is one of the most common ingredients used in baking and it goes hand in hand with a lot of sweet things, including maple syrup. Fortunately, infusing your maple syrup with vanilla is as simple as keeping a vanilla bean, split open, steeped in your bottle of maple syrup.
This is an excellent choice if you’re going to use the maple syrup in things like oatmeal, coffee, pancakes, or even in baking. Since it is a readily available ingredient in most countries, it’s one of the most popular choices for infusing maple syrup.
Maple syrup and brown sugar have similar, deep, rich, and earthy flavors. This is why they go so well as a pairing in many recipes. One of the most popular choices would be maple and brown sugar oatmeal. The combination of crystalised sweetness with the smooth rich maple taste enhances the nutty taste and texture of good oatmeal.
All you have to do to enjoy this legendary combination of flavors is to mix them both together and pour it over whatever you want. If you serve it on something warm then the sugar granules will melt for a smoother experience.
Alternatively, combine the brown sugar and maple syrup in a pot and heat slowly until they are melted and mixed together. This can be stored as a syrup for later use.
Remember when you read that maple syrup is 66% sugar? Well if you push that even further and get it to around 99% sugar you will end up with something that looks very much like brown sugar.
Maple sugar is incredibly shelf stable as long as you store it properly and it can replace the need to use processed sugars in your baking and other daily dishes.
Essentially you have to heat the syrup way above the boiling point of water (like 50 to 60 F). Remember to check what the boiling point of water is in your location as it changes with elevation.
Ensure that you have a candy thermometer handy because you do not want to burn this or your pot will be incredibly difficult to clean (oh, and you’ll wreck the sugar too).
As you cook the syrup down you’ll notice that it will start to get darker. As soon as it reaches the desired temperature then take it off the heat. This is the important part.
Whenever the temperature of the syrup cools down to about 200 degrees F, start stirring briskly until it cools down, thickens and eventually granulates into sugar.
Once it’s dry, put it through a fine sifter to get out any large chunks and ensure that you store away from any moisture. That’s it, you’re all done.
You might just think that maple syrup is used on pancakes and that’s all there is to it. Luckily for you, there are a myriad of ways to enjoy this timeless flavor. Look below for some inspiration in your next recipe.
The maple flavor really goes with anything breakfast-related and can be sitting at the table as a condiment for your meal. This is often the case at Canadian diners if you live in the heart of maple syrup country.
Here are some items that are commonly eaten with maple syrup over and above pancakes and waffles:
- Breakfast sausages
- Scrambled eggs (trust me, try it)
If a baking recipe calls for sugar you can always substitute it for maple syrup or maple sugar. Adding maple syrup to your dough is a great way to add sweetness to your pastries without using over-processed items.
Since there is still a little bit of moisture left in the sugar you’ll find that as the moisture evaporates it keeps the inside of your baked goods moist.
This effectively steams the inside of whatever it is your backing which stops it from drying out.
If you’ve ever been to Canada then you know about the little maple candies you can buy that are just crystallized maple syrup in the shape of a maple leaf.
They are so decadent that you only need one or two to be satisfied.
Maple taffy is where the magic is at. It is gooey maple syrup that is served on a bed of freshly fallen snow and eaten off of popsicle sticks. This is a common tradition in the winter (obviously) and is a great thing to do with kids.
All you need for this tasty recipe is maple syrup that has been cooked down to approximately 96% sugar so that it is significantly thicker and a tray of snow that has been put in a freezer for 10 minutes.
Take a ladleful of the taffy syrup and draw a line with it in the snow. Using a popsicle stick you can roll up the hardening taffy and eat it in one glorious bite. There is nothing quite like it.
Maple syrup 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.
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.
If you place it in clean sterilized canning jars and do the 10 minute boiling water processing bath, and store at room temperature in mason jars, your syrup should last through to the next season when you’ll make the next batch.
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.
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.
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.
At the age of 12, I found a newspaper advertisement for a 155-acre farm at a really good price and showed my parents one Sunday morning. They bought it and I happily started planting vegetables, peanuts, maize and keeping bees with the help of the local labor.
Once I married wherever we moved it was all about planting food, keeping chickens and ducks, permaculture and creating micro-climates. I learned how to build wooden cabins and outdoor furniture from pallets, and baked and cooked home-grown produce, developing recipes as I went along.