How to tap maple trees, make homemade maple syrup

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By: Jim Carpenter

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Master gardener Jim Carpenter, of Syracuse, shared his tips for tapping maple trees and making homemade maple syrup.

Ah, maple syrup, how do I love thee. Let me count the ways.

Actually, in this short article on backyard maple syrup making, you may not be inclined to undertake the process yourself—it’s not easy.

But I surely hope you will understand a lot of what is involved and perhaps gain a greater appreciation for this marvelous sweetener that nature has so generously provided for us.

WHAT IS BACKYARD MAPLE SYRUP MAKING?

It is taking a simple resource from nature and making it into a delicious and natural sweetener. It is harvesting a portion of the spring sap flow from a tree and making it into a healthy, organic part of your diet.

“There is something about a process we undertake … that adds to the quality of our lives in some way.”

WHY DO IT?

Why do we have hobbies we enjoy? Why do we garden? There is something about a process we undertake that results in a favorable outcome that adds to the quality of our lives in some way. For me, this means working with nature, following a plan and achieving results for all your effort.

THE TREES ARE IMPORTANT

Maple trees are a prerequisite in the process of making maple syrup. Whether they are your own or a friend’s or a neighbor’s, you must have access to maple trees. Sugar maple is best, but all maple trees will yield sap that you can turn into delicious maple syrup.

IT’S A SEASONAL NOTION

The sugar we seek from the maple sap is only present for a short time in the late winter and early spring. The flow of the sap requires freezing nights and warmer days in order for it to be harvested. Once the buds on the trees start to swell to become leaves, the sugar will be turning back to starch.

The season could start as early as late January or as late as the end of March. It might run for as little as a week or as long as six weeks. It all depends on the weather.

EQUIPMENT FOR TAPPING THE TREES

A drill, buckets and spiles are the basic necessities involved in obtaining sap from the trees.

Drill a hole into the tree, and then insert the spile into the hold you’ve drilled. This will allow the sap to flow through the spile and be collected in your container. I like to attach plastic tubing from the spile into a covered bucket on the ground. This keeps out any rain and debris and avoids the possibility of finding a dead rodent or bird in my container.

EVAPORATING THE SAP

When you have collected a quantity of sap, (it may take 40 gallons or more to make 1 gallon of finished syrup) you then must evaporate 98 percent of the water out of it to reach the necessary 67 percent sugar content of maple syrup.

An outdoor burner, or a “sugar shack,” is necessary for this. Many individuals make backyard burners out of cement blocks with large pans holding the liquid, using firewood as fuel. I have also seen a large kettle on a tripod that made some pretty good syrup.

Propane has made many a small batch of maple syrup in our area, but while it might be convenient, there usually is more cost involved.

FINAL FINISH

Making maple syrup requires a certain amount of attention at certain stages, or you stand to lose a complete batch of sap that you worked so hard to gather. I know this from personal experience.

After it has cooked down outside, the final finish is usually inside on the kitchen stove. You must continually check the viscosity of the syrup as it boils until it will start to string off the spoon. There are hydrometers available to check the sugar content, but I like the spoon testing method.

If you let it go too long, it will crystallize overnight and you will have to reheat it and add a little water. If you haven’t cooked it long enough, you will simply have a thinner, slightly less sweet syrup.

FILTERING YOUR SYRUP

For me this is a bit of a sticky subject (pun intended). Maple syrup is usually filtered after it has finished cooking. I have not found this to work well for me. My current method is to filter it through a paper towel before I put it on the stove for the final cooking. This will filter out any debris but will not remove the “sugar sand.”

Sugar sand is very small bits of calcium that are always present in the maple sap. What I do is let the sand settle overnight and simply pour off the syrup carefully into another container, leaving the sand on the bottom of the first container. The sand is harmless but a bit unsightly.

STORAGE

If you pour the hot syrup (180 degrees or more) into clean canning jars at the final finish, you can simply put canning lids on, and they will seal properly and store on the shelf for a year or longer.

If you do not can your syrup, it will need to be refrigerated. This syrup is basically a sterilized product and keeps very well. If a bit of mold does appear on top it, can be removed, and the product is still good. If the syrup crystallizes over time, it can simply be reheated, and the crystals will disappear.

NUTRITION

The calorie count of maple syrup is slightly less than that of honey and quite a bit less than that of corn syrup.

It is the nutrients that maple syrup contains that make this natural sweetener so much healthier than most sugars. It contains many B vitamins, as well as amino acids and antioxidants, in addition to vitamin A.

It also has high levels of many minerals such as iron, zinc, calcium, potassium and magnesium.

Have you tried making your own maple syrup before? Do you have questions for Jim? Share your questions, experiences and photos in the comments.
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