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The art of backyard maple syrup

February 24, 2018 05:15 am Updated: February 26, 2018 11:54 am

Last week, I wrote about how maple trees produce the sap that can be concentrated and turned into maple syrup.

This tasty liquid has become my favorite sweetener. I use it in my coffee every single day as well as on pancakes, ice cream, cereal and essentially anything else that needs sweetening!

The basic requirements for making maple syrup are maple trees, at least 12 inches in diameter, spiles, buckets or other collecting vessels (I used to use recycled, 1-gallon, plastic water or milk jugs), an outdoor fire pit, (made from six or eight cinder blocks) a pan to boil in, (I used a washtub) a holding container for the sap, (I used a new, plastic garbage can) a candy thermometer and strainers or cheesecloth to filter it.

A skimmer to remove debris from the boiling sap is also useful as well as a strainer to pour the sap through as it’s put in the pan. Raw maple sap often has small insects, leaves and other debris in it.

All maple trees produce sap that can be boiled down and concentrated into syrup, but sugar maples are, by far, the best species to use. Like all maples, they have their buds arranged opposite each other on the twigs.

Sugar maple twigs are light brown in color, but the buds are dark brown and the terminal bud is quite pointy. Red, silver and Norway maple twigs are reddish in color with more rounded red buds and often very large, round red flower buds near the end of the twigs. Norway, silver and red maple sap also contains sugar, but it is not as concentrated as sugar maple and these species start to grow earlier in the season than sugar maples.

Once the buds swell, the sap takes on a sour flavor, which is called a “buddy” taste. This budding out event usually ends the maple syrup season.

Early March is a good time to begin, but sometimes, the sap will flow as early as January. Trees tapped in January sometimes quit producing by the main season of March into early April. Trees are tapped using a hand driven or sometimes chainsaw, or battery-driven drill with a suitable-sized bit. Standard spiles call for a seven-sixteenths diameter hole, but some commercial maple producers have switched over to thinner diameter spiles, which do less damage to the tree.

The tap holes are drilled at a slightly upward angle about 2 inches deep and the spiles are gently tapped in with a hammer.

With good conditions, (sunny, warm days and frosty cold nights), a single tap may produce a gallon or more of sap in 24 hours. Gather sap as needed, and when you have 5 to 10 gallons, it is time to begin to boil.

Maple sap is perishable in warm weather and should be boiled within a few days of collection unless it is cold enough for it to freeze overnight. Ten gallons will usually boil down to only about one quart of syrup, so boil outside at first or risk having your paint or wallpaper peel off indoors due to the huge quantities of steam produced!

I generally start off with a few gallons of sap in a clean washtub. Try to avoid lead-based boiling or collection vessels since the lead may end up in the finished syrup.

Boil as fast as possible, maintaining a roaring fire and gradually add more sap 1 gallon at a time as the sap in the pan evaporates. When I have reduced 10 gallons of sap to about a gallon of liquid, I bring it indoors for finishing.

Maple syrup is finished when it reaches a temperature that is 7 degrees above the boiling point of water or about 219 degrees Fahrenheit. Filter the hot syrup through cheesecloth or filter cloth into clean glass jars or jugs and seal. The finished maple syrup keeps indefinitely at room temperature.

If all this sounds like a lot of time and effort for a relatively small reward, it is, but it is a pleasant experience to pass time outdoors on a typical miserable late February or March afternoon.

Questions or comments? Email Bob Beyfuss at rlb14@cornell.edu.