Maple sugaring is a longtime homestead favorite
The window for tapping is brief, the collection is laborious, and sugaring takes patience, but the sweet reward of pure maple syrup makes harvesting one’s own liquid gold worth the time and effort. With a little know-how and access to the right trees and tools, anyone can enjoy this longtime Pennsylvania homesteading favorite.
Sugar maples are best for syrup due to their high sucrose content, although most native maples will do the trick just fine. Less-desirable varieties are not as sugar-concentrated and simply require more cooking to evaporate a higher percentage of water.
Identifying maple trees is a much easier task earlier in the year when foliage gives them away. One needs to simply look for the telltale maple leaf (think Canada’s flag), and mark the tree with a length of orange surveyor’s ribbon for later reference. It is possible to identify maples after leaf drop based on their bark, but it takes a well-trained eye.
The recommended tree size for tapping is anything over 10-inches in diameter. If the tree is large enough to wrap both arms around without touching fingertips, the tree can handle two taps, but don’t exceed three or it could cause long-term damage. Normal tapping won’t cause any major health issues.
A dozen plastic tapping spiles with tubing can be purchased online for around $20, and they’ll last several years if cared for properly. However, stainless steel spigot taps are hard to beat in terms of overall longevity.
Ideal tapping weather occurs when temperatures dip below freezing overnight and rise above freezing during daylight. Find a long string of these in late February or early March and you’re in business for a steady flow.
To attach taps, drill a 1-and-a-half-inch hole on a slightly upward angle into the south side of the tree using a 5/16-inch bit. Then, gently tamp in the spiles with a hammer. If done properly, sap should begin to drip within seconds.
Some prefer hanging buckets or plastic jugs directly on the spiles for sap collection, while others connect a small plastic tube, which runs the sap down the trunk into a container resting on the ground.
These sites should be checked daily, and when sap is really flowing, multiple trips may be necessary. Transport harvested sap to a larger storage reservoir for housing until ready to cook. On average, it takes approximately 40-gallons of raw sap from a maple tree to produce 1-gallon of syrup. Plan accordingly.
Ideally, it is best to boil the sap within a few days to prevent bacteria from breaking down the sugar content, but if kept cold, sap can last a week or more. Store sap in a spare refrigerator, heavy-duty cooler, or build a homemade icebox using a clean trashcan with snow packed around it in a shaded location.
The sugaring process involves boiling the sap over a steady outdoor heat source to evaporate the water, leaving natural sugars behind. Doing this outdoors is essential because the amount of steam produced can chip paint off a kitchen ceiling.
Sugaring takes several hours, so a large open faced evaporating unit over a hot fire is key. A simple arch design is to build a firebox out of cinderblocks and lay a few oven grates across the top. Sap can then be poured into a large restaurant-style serving pan to cook over the open flame.
The variations for this process are limited only by one’s creativity. Old oil drums, beer kegs and steel barrels all have been converted for the task of sugaring. Though costly, propane-powered turkey fryers or camp stoves work too, but the key is to provide a constant heat source.
The most economical fuel for sugaring comes in the form of downed branches from winter storms and dry cordwood split thinly. These ignite quickly and burn hot.
Water boils around 212-degrees Fahrenheit depending on altitude, and sap turns to syrup at 7-degrees above boiling point (219). The trick is to keep boiling the sap until it gets close to conversion.
Monitor sap with a temperature probe or meat thermometer. Once it reaches around 216, pull the near-syrup from the evaporator and transfer it to a stockpot for finishing off on a kitchen stove where temperature can be controlled more precisely.
As the reduced sap converts to syrup, a noticeable change will occur from large bubbles typical of boiling water to a steady pulse of tight frothy foam. Keep watching the temperature, and as soon as it hits 219, remove syrup from heat.
Store syrup in clean mason jars following the same process one would use to can vegetables or jelly. If sealed correctly, it should keep well on a dark shelf for several months, but it can also be stored in a refrigerator for extra precaution.
Enjoy the beautiful, amber-hued goodness on pancakes and waffles or substitute it for sugar or honey in any number of recipes. Harvesting one’s own natural maple syrup is a tedious task, but it can be a lot of fun and the payoff is oh so sweet.