Looking at the projected temperatures for this week, I made my decision — it was time to tap the maple trees. Usually I wait for my Amish neighbor down the road to put up his 1500 buckets as a signal for me to put up mine. But I have talked to people who have already made a little syrup this year, so I guess the time is right for me to start.
When I first wrote about making backyard maple syrup I wanted to include it as a form of gardening. I really think it does qualify in the sense that you work in cooperation with nature to produce something edible for the table. Actually, people do plant maple trees for the express purpose of harvesting the sap to make maple syrup. They simply have to wait about 30 years. Talk about delayed gratification!
My grandfather had a sugar shack in his woods when I was growing up and I have many fond memories of those Sundays when my relatives would gather to help harvest the sap from the many maple trees he had. It was really a hoot for some of us boys to ride along behind the tractor on a mud sled gathering the sap from the trees and dumping it into the large milk cans strapped to the sled. I vividly recall taking long cold drinks from the buckets that would collect the maple sap. I remember roasting hot dogs and marshmallows in the fire that was cooking the sap down to make the syrup, another plus to those Sundays in the woods.
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I suppose it was only natural for me to try my hand at making maple syrup after I retired and had the time necessary for the long hours required to cook down the sap. Since I also have an old building with a wood stove, in addition to having a few maple trees, I was already set up with the basic necessities. The thing with cooking maple sap to make maple syrup is you have to boil off about 98 percent of the water from the sap. This is a process that cannot be done in the kitchen. Actually, it can be done in the kitchen if you are in the market for new wallpaper because it will steam the paper right off the walls!
All maple trees contain a small percentage of maple sugar. The Sugar Maple, followed by the Black Maple, has the highest percentage of sugar, with soft maples such as Red and Silver containing lesser amounts. I have only soft maples on my property, but you work with what you have. The syrup I make from my trees is 100 percent as sweet and flavorful as any made from the preferred hard maples. The only difference is that I need to remove more water from my sap to get to the desired sugar content.
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As soon as a good amount of sap is collected, it is time to start cooking. I cook my sap on top of the wood stove until the smell and color lets me know it is getting closer to the desired consistency. At this point I will remove the slowly thickening liquid from the larger container to a smaller pan and head for the gas stove in the kitchen. This is where I will finish the process. While the syrup boils on the stove I stand over it with a spoon to constantly check the viscosity of the liquid. At this stage, the syrup will easily foam over if it is not kept in check. Along with stirring, a bit of fat from some drops of milk or just a touch of butter might be used to keep the foam from boiling over.
- FROM THE MAGAZINE: Maple Syrup: Pure, simple, local, Flavor 574 Magazine, winter 2014
When the drips from my testing spoon are starting to thicken and string off I know it is getting close to done. If I pull it too soon, it will not be quite as thick as it should be, with slightly less sugar content. If I wait too long it will crystallize when it cools since it will have too much sugar in it to remain in a liquid suspension, which is how different types of maple candies are made.
One year I spent a day and a half cooking down some sap in one of my first experiences in making maple syrup. I went into the house for a bit of supper and stayed too long. When I went back out and got close to the door of my shack I could smell it: burnt maple. I ruined my first batch of maple syrup by scorching it. A watched pot may never boil, but an unwatched pot will surely boil over!
- Another sure sign that spring is rapidly approaching is the opening of the Master Gardeners Lawn and Garden Answer Line. By calling the Purdue Extension Elkhart County Office at 574-533-0554 between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday or Friday from April through September, you can get answers to any questions or problems you might be having with your lawn or garden. This is a Purdue University affiliated function that is staffed by knowledgeable master gardeners.
- The Master Gardeners also have a table on the first Saturday of every month at the Goshen Farmers Market from April to October. Stop by, or give us a call!