Ahh… time to take a minute and relax (ha! I wish…). Our first year of maple syrup making is behind us. After a week (yeah… we got a late start) of craziness, we have a small stash of yummy goodness, sticky dishes, soot-stained clothes, and a whole lot of appreciation for the syrup making process. We jumped into this endeavor on a whim and quite “green” but we still managed to get over a gallon of syrup in the end!
Syrup making is no joke. I will never again comment on the price of pure maple syrup- they deserve every penny (and then some), trust me! A gallon of syrup may seem like a lot (and it is!) but we started out with over 40 gallons of sap!! From tapping the trees to evaporating the sap… there is a whole lot of work that goes into making syrup.
Along the way we learned a TON and made plenty of mistakes. Here is a compilation of 10 lessons I learned through the whole maple syrup making process…
1. It doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg
Sure, fancy tapping supplies and an evaporator can help the maple syrup making process go quicker and smoother but expensive equipment is not necessary. In our case, we wanted to get our feet wet this year. We didn’t want to invest a whole bunch of money in something that we weren’t sure would be repeated in subsequent years.
We utilized many items we already had lying around as well as things from family/friends. For example, my mother-in-law works at a restaurant. They had attempted to sell their iced tea in bulk gallon sized bags but it didn’t go over well with customers. Instead of letting the bags go to waste, she took them, hoping to get good use out of them. We called her to see if she had any gallon milk jugs and were thrilled when she told us about these bags. They worked perfectly! We drilled a hole in the cap and ran the tubing right into the bag. Score!
Our tapping “supplies” included:
- Unused medical tubing- $0
- Unused food grade bags with locking lids- $0
- Posts- $0
- Wire- $0
- Scissors- $0
- Drill- $0
- (Four) 5-gallon food grade buckets from the local supermarket- $3
- LP tank (one exchange) $20
- Turkey fryer- $0
- (Two) large pots- $0
- Fabricated rebar grate- $0
- Cinder blocks- $0
- Cheesecloth/Sterile towels- $0
- Sheet metal pieces- $0
- Stainless steel spoons (2) $2
- Fine mesh strainer $1
- Canning jars/lids/rings- $0
- Candy thermometer– $0
Total Cost: $26
As you see, the LP was the biggest expense. We experimented and processed 8.5 gallons with the turkey fryer. It became evident that we would spend an arm and a leg to process the whole 40 gallons this way and opted to use the turkey fryer only to keep the waiting sap warm before we added it to the pots over the wood fire.
2. A hydrometer is a wise investment
There are a few different methods to determine when your syrup is “done”. Because we wanted to keep the cost at a minimum, we decided to go with techniques that would utilize what we already had.
The temperature at which sap becomes syrup is 7ºF above the boiling point of water. Our boiling point is 212ºF so by using a thermometer (<– any kitchen thermometer will do. This is the one we used and it was great), we knew that at 219ºF our sap was finally syrup.
The second way we determined when to stop cooking our syrup was the frozen plate method. Syrup does not visibly thicken when it reduces. If it is hot, it is runny. To quickly cool down a small amount of syrup, pour a little bit on a frozen plate. You will be able to quickly see what the cooled syrup looks like and know if it is ready or not. **This method is also used when making jelly/jam.
Both of these methods worked okay. With the first batch, I ended up processing it a touch too long and it turned to maple sugar. Shoot.- it was my fault though. The second time around I was nervous about over heating again and although it reached the right temp and passed the plate test, it’s a little too runny.
A maple syrup hydrometer tells you exactly how much water is remaining in the syrup and when to stop processing. Essentially, it takes the guess work out of it. After a whole day (or two) of boiling down sap, a tool to make your life easier is priceless. We will be investing in one for next year.
3. A tree can have more than one tap
It’s no secret that we are novice sugar makers (<– that’s what you call a person who makes maple syrup… *adding to my resume*…) so we did a bit (okay, quite a bit) of research before we tapped. Turns out, depending on the diameter of the tree, a tree can have up to 6 taps going at once! We tapped 8 trees with a total of 14 taps.
How do you know how many taps to put in your tree?
- 12-18 inch diameter = 1 tap
- 18-32 inch diameter= up to 3 taps
- 32+ inch diameter= up to 6 taps (although this is controversial. Some sugar makers don’t put more than 3 taps in a tree)
Extra fun fact: any species of maple can be tapped, as well as birch trees!
4. There is a lot of filtering
Filtering is necessary to ensure there isn’t any extra “stuff” hanging out in your syrup. Bark from the tree, bugs, ashes from the fire, etc. all will end up in your sap/syrup and you want to make sure it doesn’t appear in your final product….”Would you like some bark with your syrup?”
Use layers of cheesecloth or sanitized towels to strain.
- Filter sap before processing (using a closed system like we did means not much “stuff” floating around in the sap but we still did this step)
- Use a fine mesh strainer to skim off any particles that come up in the foam while boiling
- Filter again after its boiled down but not quite syrup
- Final filter (add extra layers) after it is finished to filter out “sugar sand”
5. Not all maple syrup tastes the same
Maple syrup is maple syrup, right? Wrong. When you make your own syrup, you discover that not all syrup is alike. We ended up with very light syrup with more of a “honey” tone. Don’t get me wrong, it’s delicious but it just doesn’t taste like the quintessential maple syrup I grew up on. The difference in flavor can be because of the tree but also because of when the tree was tapped.
No worries, our pancakes will still be amazing :).
6. Wood fire is better than LP
Hands down. No questions asked- use wood fire if at all possible. Processing sap into syrup takes a LONG time… like really… a LOOOONG time. If you are doing it over LP fire (like a turkey fryer), you will end up going through a lot of tanks of LP and the cost will skyrocket.
There are many ways to cook over a wood fire- we chose to use what we had and made a cinder block pit over an existing campfire pit. One side was open so we could add more wood (you will go through a lot of wood) and my husband fabricated a grate out of rebar to set the pots on. It does take a bit to get the fire hot enough to boil the sap but once its going, it is very efficient.
Our set up was with two pots on the fire and one on a turkey fryer. The largest pot on the fire was our main evaporator- we chose that one because it seemed to be heating the best. Warm sap (from the turkey fryer- kept it on low flame so it didn’t use much LP) was added to the smaller pot and once it was reduced by half or so, into the larger pot where it reduced even more. Once all the sap was reduced and in the larger pot, we let it boil down to about 2 gallons before finishing on the stove (my parents are super smart and have a stove in their garage for canning).
**I do not recommend cooking in your house unless you want everything to be covered in a sticky film**
7. It’s exhausting
In order to make maple syrup, a lot of things need to be accomplished in a short amount of time. Gathering supplies (unless, of course, you don’t do this spur-of-the-moment like we did and are actually prepared), tapping trees, collecting sap, storing sap, making/setting up your evaporation system, cooking sap, filtering again, cooking again, filtering again… yikes.
Although you do not need to constantly stir the sap when boiling, it does need regular attention. Sap can go from starting to bubble to boiling over in seconds. That amounts to hours and hours of watching a pot boil and adding fuel to the fire. For sanity sake, I highly recommend having someone there to talk to.
I am so grateful for my parents who took on the (just as exhausting) task of keeping an eye on our three kids while I did this. My dad helped me a lot (and kept me company) with the boiling as well. If you have young children, you definitely want to have someone there to help with the kids. Not only does it get boring fast for them, it’s quite dangerous as well.
8. Sap is perishable
Sap looks and pretty much tastes just like water. If I hadn’t read about this, I would never have guessed- sap is perishable. It is highly recommended to process sap as quickly as possible, going no longer than 7 days from tapping or it will spoil.
9. Tapped trees need to be checked multiple times a day when sap is running
We tapped trees at my parents and at my Grandma’s house, about 40 minutes away. Luckily, my parents were willing to check the taps when they got home from work every day and Grandma was very excited to keep an eye on her trees as well. We incorrectly assumed this would be enough- gallon bags should be plenty big enough! Nope, first morning my mom called when she left for work to tell me the bags were 3/4 full. I didn’t want to waste any sap so I made an unexpected trip over there to collect. We got 14 gallons in less than 24 hours!! The weather did change (cold spell) and sap slowed way down but we realized we need bigger collection containers next year if we are unable to check more than once a day.
10. Know the basics before you begin
By no means do you need to read everything and be a master sugar maker before you tap your first tree. However, knowledge is power. I don’t have a whole ton of free time but I read what I could so I felt like we had a little bit of an idea on what we were doing.
If you are going to put the effort into making syrup (and it sure is an effort), give it your best shot. Not only for your sanity, but out of respect for the trees as well (yes, you can kill a tree if you do not collect properly).
Was it worth it? Will we do it again?
YES and YES. Sure, it didn’t turn out exactly like I had hoped but overall it was a fun, educational process that we will surely do year after year. Practice makes perfect, next year we will correct our mistakes from this year and then most likely make a few new mistakes…. such is how it goes in life!
Have you ever made syrup? If not, would you like to learn more about the process? Tell me about it in the comments!