How to Make Maple Syrup
Winter can be long for those of us who love growing and picking our own food fresh from the garden. It is exciting when the days start to get warmer and I know winter is almost through, which can be quite long here in Atlantic Canada.
The first thing I look forward to when winter is coming to an end is the beginning of maple syrup season! It is one of the best times of year, because it is the first taste of producing our own food for the season. Of all the food we produce maple syrup is in my opinion the most delicious to eat, or even drink every now and then.
Maple syrup is an amazing gift in nature that God has given us and is something I am very thankful for. My husband and I decided to try making it ourselves for the first time a few years ago.
I want to share with you how we make our maple syrup and give you some tips on how you can start making it yourself. I know not everyone has someone down the road to teach them, so I want to explain to you step by step how you can make your very own homemade maple syrup for the first time.
There are three main steps to making maple syrup:
1. Collect the sap
2. Boil the sap
3. Finish and bottle the syrup
Before we get into the steps for making maple syrup, here is some background on making maple syrup if you are new to the terms and processes.
Sap is the liquid that you get from the trees to boil down to make syrup. All tree species have sap. Sap is the liquid in trees that carries the water, minerals and sugars. It flows in the phloem of a tree, which is the layer below the bark.
A tree gets water and nutrients from the soil through its roots, which is transported from the roots up the tree. At the leaves, energy from the sun causes carbon dioxide (from the air) to react with the water in the leaves to form glucose. You likely learned about this process called photosynthesis in school, which produces sugar. This is how tress have sugar in them.
Over the winter trees store the sugars they have produced, to be used to grow and make leaves in the spring. In the winter the sap does not flow, since the temperatures are too cold. However, when the days start to go above freezing in the spring the sap will begin to flow.
When the trees first start flowing, we are able to make a hole into the tree, to get the sap flowing in the phloem layer. This sap will have the sugars in it that the tree created the year before, to use for growing this spring. Therefore, we are taking some of its resources, which is why you should not tap too small of a tree since you don’t want to hinder its growth.
After understanding what sap is and why it has sugar, it’s important to understand how it becomes syrup.
Sap is made up of mostly water with some sugar and minerals. To make syrup from sap we need to take the water out of the sap, so we are left with the sugar. To do this we boil the sap, which causes the water in the sap to evaporate off and leaves the sugar and minerals behind. The reason that the water evaporates off and the sugar is left, is because water has a much lower boiling point than sugar. So, when you bring the sap to a certain temperature the water will evaporate away, but the sugar will just be left hot.
If you wanted to make actual sugar you would want all the water evaporated away, but for syrup you want it to be liquid still, so you only boil the sap long enough for the right amount of water to leave.
After you have removed enough of the water from the sap, you are left with delicious maple syrup. Different species of trees have different amounts of sugar in their sap, with sugar maple trees having the most. If a tree has a high ratio of sugar to water in its sap, you will be able to make more syrup faster, as it has less water to boil off than sap from a tree species with low sugar content. This is why sugar maple trees are the most popular to use for making maple syrup.
Now that you know why and how sap from trees can be turned into syrup, I want to show you how we make our maple syrup step by step so you can learn to make it yourself!
1. COLLECT THE SAP
Identify Maple trees
For collecting sap, the first thing you need to do is identify your trees. There are many species of hardwood trees that you can collect sap from to make into syrup. However, to make maple syrup you need to collect sap from maple trees. There are various species of maple trees, all of which can be tapped, but the most popular maple trees to tap for syrup are sugar maples (Acer Saccharum), because their sap has the highest sugar content.
It is easiest to identify trees by their leaves, so I like to mark our maple trees in the summer when they have their leaves. By doing this I can be sure that I am tapping the right trees in the spring when there are no leaves. It is possible to identify trees by their bark and buds, but it is harder to do.
Right time of year: Early Spring
After you have identified which trees to tap, the next thing you need is the right time of year, which is the spring. Maple syrup is made in the spring because this is when sap is flowing in the trees. In order for the sap in trees to flow the temperature must be below freezing (0°C or 32°F) at night and warm up to above freezing in the day.
The exact timing will change depending on the weather each year and where you live. For us here in eastern Canada the days start getting above freezing at the beginning of March. The sap season will last for about 3 – 4 weeks, and after this time the nights start to get above freezing.
Tapping the trees
When the days begin to warm up it is time to tap your maple trees. To do this you will need:
The first step to tapping trees is to drill the holes. For this we use a hand crank drill, but an electric one would also work. You want your drill bit to match the size of your spiel, so we use a 7/16 drill bit which is pretty standard.
Drill the hole in the tree at around chest height, or what is comfortable for you to collect the buckets from. Remember to take into account how deep the snow is! The snow will melt during the sap season, therefor you do not want to drill a hole that will be above your head when the snow is gone.
Drill the holes slightly angled up so that gravity can help the sap flow out of the trees. Make the holes about 1 to 1 ¼ inches deep, or deep enough for the spiel to fit in and not fall out.
Once you have a hole made, push the spiel in and lightly tap it the rest of the way with a hammer. You can get plastic or metal spiels. Some people prefer one type over the other, but we use both and don’t really see any difference between them.
Now that your spiel is in the tree, hang your bucket from the hook on the spiel and put on the lid. You can buy metal or plastic buckets and lids specifically made for collecting sap, however some people just use containers and buckets that they have on hand.
We use some metal and some plastic buckets. I like the metal buckets because they have the classic old-fashioned maple syrup feel and look so nice hanging on the trees. Even though the clear plastic ones do not look as nice, they are handy because you can tell how much sap is in the buckets from a distance.
Collecting the buckets
Once you have the trees tapped you will need to wait for the buckets to fill with sap. How fast the sap flows from the trees, or “runs”, depends on how warm the days are. We usually go around and collect the sap from the buckets every 2-3 days. We use a funnel and pour the sap into larger containers and store them in a cool place. We boil the sap we have collected about once a week, or whenever we have time.
After collecting the sap, it needs to be filtered to get out any debris. We use maple syrup filters that we buy at our local farm store, but you could use an old t-shirt or bed sheet.
2. BOIL THE SAP
The Set Up
There are a lot of different methods for boiling sap, such as specialty maple syrup evaporates, handmade evaporators, a pot over a propane burner, a kitchen stove, or like the olden days a cauldron over a campfire. Really all you need are:
High temperature heat source
Large pot or pan
Candy thermometer (or an experienced eye)
The first time we boiled sap we used a big pot on a small wood stove, which did not work because the fire didn’t get hot enough. We then moved the pot to a propane blow torch, which worked okay for a small amount of sap, but it took a long time to boil.
This year we wanted a more efficient method of boiling our sap, so we used metal pans on a cinder block fire pit. We chose this method because it was a lot cheaper than buying an evaporator and allowed us to boil the sap faster than in a pot.
To build this sap “evaporator” we stacked up cinder blocks, that we had around the farm, in a rectangle the size of our pans. We left a hole in the front for adding wood and stacked a chimney off the back. Having the chimney kept the ash out of the sap, which had been a problem for us.
For the pans we used 10 (width) by 20 (length) by 4(depth) inch food grade chaffing dishes that we ordered from amazon. However, I would recommend getting the 6 inch deep pans because you will be able to have more sap in your pans without them boiling over.
We filled the cinder block walls with sand and had a metal “door” to help keep the heat in. We put a metal rack in the firepit to put the burning logs on so that the fire would be closer to the bottom of the pans.
The main thing is to find a way to heat up your sap enough so that it boils. The hotter your fire, the harder your sap will boil. The harder your sap boils, the faster the water leaves your sap and therefor the faster you will have syrup.
Boiling the sap
Once you have your sap collected and system set up it is time to start boiling. Add sap to your pot or pan before starting the fire, so that the pot is not burning dry. Make sure to only fill your pan half way full so that it does not boil over.
As you boil the sap it will get darker and thicker. As it boils down keep adding the sap you have collected. Once you have added all your sap, or the pot is full, boil the sap until it starts to foam or reaches the right temperature.
The temperature that you need to boil your sap to will depend on your location. If you know someone who makes it in your area, ask them what temperature to boil to or look it up online.
Here in New Brunswick we boil our sap to 219°F. However, we take our sap off of the fire at 214°F and finish it inside. The reason that we do not boil it all the way on the fire is because we cannot control the temperature as well as we can on a stove, and it is important to take the sap just to 219°F.
To measure the temperature of the sap we use a large wooden sap thermometer, which we borrow from a neighbour down the road. You can use any candy thermometer to measure temperature, however you want it to be long. We have tried using a small candy thermometer, but it was very difficult to read with the heat and steam.
One thing to look for is the sap starting to foam up, this means it is ready to take off the fire and bring to the stove for finishing. Although you can look for the foam, a thermometer is essential for making maple syrup, unless you have been making it for decades.
3. FINISH AND BOTTLE THE SYRUP
When the sap reaches 214°F we bring it to the stove and continue boiling it until the thermometer reads 219°F. If you are impatient, like we were and take it off a degree early your sap will be a bit runny.
Bringing the syrup to the final temperature may take a while, do not worry if it feels like the temperature isn’t rising, it will eventually. When it is almost there the syrup will foam up really high, which is why you want a tall pot. We place a wooden spoon across the top of the pot to keep it from boiling over.
When the syrup reaches the final temperature (our case 219°F) take the pot off the heat and strain it one last time. For this we use a thick wool strainer, which gets out any minerals or “sand” in the syrup. We bought our strainer from out local farm store that carries sap supplies, but you could also get it online. Straining the syrup will take two people so make sure you have someone to lend a hand.
Once it is strained, put the syrup into bottles or cans. We use maple syrup bottles that we have collected from friends and family, but we also have purchased some. You need to buy new tops for the bottles every year because they have a fresh seal on them. You can also use mason jars to preserve your syrup.
While the syrup is still hot funnel it into the bottles and put on the cap. Leave ½ inch space at the top of the bottle. When the bottles are filled lay them on their sides so the hot sap touches the cap and helps it seal.
Once sealed you can store your maple syrup on the shelf for at least a year, however we love ours so much it is heard to make it last that long.
So there you have it, your very own homemade maple syrup!
It is one of my favorite things to make and to eat. I love having a natural sugar that I can use in so many ways. If you have one maple tree in your back yard, or a forest, I hope you try and make your own maple syrup. Once you taste it, you know it will be worth the effort.
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Hey, I’m Maggie. I hope you will join me and my family in getting back to the land. Here you will learn about making things yourself, cooking homegrown food, and beginning a homesteading journey.