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Why not? If you have access to a maple tree, a stove, and a few simple tools, you can make syrup as good, or better than the best you can buy. And thanks to what I call the "synergy of simplicity", you'll get more than just some exquisitely-flavored, golden syrup. The fringe benefits include:
And there's one more benefit, maybe the best of all. Everyone knows it takes a lot of sap to make a little syrup. What many people don't know is that, while the fresh sap has only a hint of sugar, it takes very little boiling for the sweetness to assert itself. This happens long before it thickens into syrup that will keep. This lightly boiled sap is a uniquely useful, subtle sweetener, less intense than syrup, but still rich in maple character and flavor. And the only way to get it is to make it yourself. Because it requires much less energy to make than syrup, it's an energy conserving way to enjoy the pleasures of the maple tree.
How to do it
So let's get started! First, you need a maple tree... Sugar Maple has the sweetest sap, but any native maple species will do. Avoid Norway Maple with its milky sap. We tap the 2 Silver Maple trees in our front yard to make a golden syrup better than any store-bought syrup we've ever tasted.
No maple trees in your yard? No woodlot? Ask the neighbors. They're likely to agree, especially if you offer to share the harvest. When you're choosing trees remember this: Those buckets can fill pretty fast - several times a day when the sap is running well. And sap, like water, is very heavy. When deciding how far afield to go for maple trees, you'll have to weigh the benefits of a good workout against the convenience of being able to spy a full bucket from the kitchen window and step out the door to empty it. The first time you boil sap, you might want to limit yourself to a couple of trees. After that, you'll have an idea of what you can comfortably handle.
You can tap anytime after the trees go dormant in the fall. We usually wait until mid-February, but, given the right weather (warm days and freezing nights), sap can run in January or even December (Pancakes and fresh, homemade syrup for Christmas breakfast?). By the way, you don't have to live in the Northeast to make syrup. If you have maples and the weather is right, the sap will run.
If you're going to use commercial spiles (available at farm supply stores throughout the northeast U.S.) to funnel the sap into the buckets, you'll need a 7/16 inch bit and a drill. Drill a hole about waist high into the southeast side of the tree. The hole should be angled slightly upward and about 2-3 inches deep. Tap in a spile and hang a bucket to catch the sap. You can use commercially available buckets or make your own. We're perfectly happy with reused 1 gallon spring water jugs. We cut a small "x" in the upper side of the jug for the spile, and secure it with a piece of wire wrapped once around the spile with a loop going over the top of the jug. We leave the cap on the jug to keep out dirt and insects.
You can make your own spiles. All you need is a food-safe tube that will fit the hole snugly enough to prevent the sap from leaking. I've made gallons of sap from trees tapped with spiles made from Elderberry stems. Bamboo should work well, too. If you use homemade spiles, you'll may need to experiment with drill sizes to get a snug fit.
Gather the sap as frequently as possible, especially on warm days when it will ferment if you leave it too long. Keep sap chilled until you're ready to boil it.
Boiling the sap
Since we live in the suburbs and tap only two trees, we boil indoors on the stove. If you tap more than a couple of trees, you'll probably want to boil outside outside or have a strong exhaust fan. Otherwise, you'll have a very damp house and sticky walls from all the steam. We do our boiling at night and in the morning when the house is cold. The small amount we boil nicely warms and humidifies the house. Smells great, too!
Put the syrup in a wide pan and boil vigorously, skimming foam as it appears. We use Corningware pots because we think the ceramic makes a lighter, better flavored syrup. As the sap approaches syrup consistency, we filter it through a piece of muslin and transfer it to a smaller pot and a slower heat. For immediate consumption, you can make the syrup as thick or thin as you like. It's convenient to have both on hand - thin for adding a delicate sweetness to yogurt, perhaps and thick for the ultimate banana split...
To make syrup for long-term storage, you'll need a candy thermometer. First boil some plain water and note the temperature on the thermometer. Then, with the thermometer in the nearly finished sap, boil until the temperature is just 7 degrees F. above the temperature at which the water boiled. When it reaches the correct temperature, pour it into sterilized canning jars and seal. Leave about 1/2 inch airspace at the top to insure a good seal.
A snowfall is no surprise during sugaring. It's also a great opportunity to sample Snow Ice Cream and Sugar on Snow.
Snow Ice Cream
Mix together some cream or half and half and enough fresh maple syrup to sweeten. Pour this mix over clean, new-fallen snow. Mix and serve immediately. Try a couple of very small batches to fine-tune the sweetness and the ratio of maple and cream to snow.
Sugar on Snow
Boil and stir 1 cup syrup carefully until a few drops congeals when dropped onto snow. Fill soup plates with fresh, clean snow and drizzle spoonfuls of the thickened syrup over it. Serve immediately. Use a fork or your fingers to pull the candy out of the snow. This is traditionally eaten with sour pickles. Serves six.
Put 2 cups syrup in a deep pot. Boil and stir syrup to 230 F. Remove it from the heat and stir until the surface loses its sheen. Now pour it onto foil or waxed paper. As it begins to harden, score it into pieces with a knife.
* New! Aaron's Maple Milk
Aaron (age 6) would like you to know about his invention, Maple Milk. To make it, just add 1-4 TBSP. maple syrup to 1 quart milk and stir. Then serve, chilled, or hot and steaming. A little cinnamon, nutmeg, or vanilla makes it even better. A great non-caffienated alternative to hot chocolate. Note: Kids will probably like the chilled version more than adults, but the hot version has universal appeal (especially if you add a little bourbon!).
More Maple Delight
Now that you've tried the more well-known maple delights it's time to explore the subtle sweetener we mentioned earlier, made from lightly-boiled sap. We generally start using the sap after it's boiled long enough to skim the foam once or twice. That's well before it's been reduced to half its original volume. To me, much of the fun of sugaring is finding ways to use the sap before it turns to syrup. Let's start with breakfast.
Jessica loves her morning coffee made with sap. "It's outrageously good!", she says. Oatmeal cooked in sap has a smooth, gently sweet flavor that's hard to describe, but easy to enjoy. The sweetness seems somehow more complete and satisfying than when it's added in the bowl. To make it, proceed as usual, but use sap instead of water. To make it sweeter, start with sap that's been boiled longer.
Having eggs? you can boil them in sap. It won't change the flavor, but you'll get a little extra mileage out of the fuel you're burning to make the syrup.
Pancakes? Muffins? Use partially evaporated sap to replace some of the liquid in the recipe. Reduce the sugar a bit as well.
At lunchtime, try adding sap to soup. Split-pea works especially well.
Strange as it seems, maple goes well with meat. Traditional Native American cuisine pairs it with venison. It also complements pork. Partially evaporated sap and tart apple slices add sweet pizazz to any stir-fry containing pork.
And a nightcap of herbal tea made with sap is sweet and soothing.
Be warned: After pouring sap into everything you eat and boiling sap morning and night for several weeks, you'll get tired of maple and sweetness. But the season, sweet as it is, is also short. It's just long enough to cure your sweet tooth and give you a taste for the bracing, health-building flavors of spring - arugula, dandelions, mustards and kale.
And sometime next winter, after too many nights of cold and snow, you'll dream of maple branches silhouetted against a deep blue, spring sky; you'll feel the weight of overflowing buckets and smell the wondrous aroma of boiling sap.
P.S. Silver Maple Syrup - so special it inspires poetry...
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