Friday, January 31, 2014

Maple Syrup- Tapping Trees and Cooking Your Own

Making maple syrup was something of a ritual for my family every year during the first thaw when winter was just starting to loosen it's grip. I grew up on a large wooded property with winding trails and paths to walk in through the canopy of leafy trees, especially the maple trees. So when the snow started to dissipate we'd trudge around to every maple tree with some metal spouts, a bunch of 5 gallon plastic buckets, and hit every maple tree on the property.



I remember at first being initially excited. I'm a huge fan of maple syrup, everything else is just imitation as far as pancakes go, so the idea that we could create our own supply was thrilling. Until I saw the amount of sap and the yield. For a kid that was the most dissapointing realization. First of all I thought that the sap was the maple syrup- Why do I have to cook it down?



Most of the sap disappears during this process, and it is estimated that for every 40 gallons of sap you get only 1 gallon of maple syrup. That's the price we pay to get some of that golden sugary goodness. Back then I hated slaving over our old 1940's wood stove in our shed, sometimes having to stay in there well after dark, watching the sap cook down and stirring it occasionally. But now as an adult I want to sprinkle sugar maple tree seeds everywhere and grow a field of them so I can harvest a glutenous amount of syrup all for me me me..and my fiancé.



When and What Should You Tap?



You can make maple syrup with just about any variety of maple tree, but the most popular kind to use is the Sugar Maple or Acer Saccharum.



Generally around mid-March to the start of April is when most people start tapping their maple trees. This can vary as the weather has been a little flaky lately for many of us, but generally the ideal conditions is a freezing cold night followed by a 40 degree day the next. If you jump the gun and you tap the trees too early and another cold spell hits, your tap will be cut off and you will have to wait it out until the thaw starts again. Spring thaw is the best time to gain some sap from your maple trees although you can get some in the fall or on a warmer winter day.



How to Tap Your Maple Trees



Step 1:Mark off the trees to be tapped



Take some twine or construction tape or a can of spray paint and mark each tree you plan to tap. When choosing maple trees, make sure that the tree is at least 10" in diameter. For each 6-8" in diameter more than 10" you can add another tap to the tree. For some old maple trees, they can have as many as 4 spouts in one!



Step 2:Drill It
Now that your trees are marked, take a cordless power drill or a hand drill and bore a hole in the tree 2 feet up from the ground and about 2" deep. Try and angle the hole in your tree upward so that the sap will flow out more freely. You can get a specific bit for tapping trees from sugaring suppliers that are 7/16-inch bits. This matches the size of the commercial tapping spouts exactly, but you can also get a standard 1/2" bit or 3/8" bit to work.























Step 3:Hammer the Spout



Gently hammer in your metal tapping spouts, making sure not to crack the bark of your tree. If you crack the bark, sap will start to leak out of that and you will lose precious sap! So hammer the spout in lightly in bursts to make it go in far enough so that the spout won't fall out and so that you can hang your sap bucket from it.



Step 4:Buckets of Sap
Manufactured spouts for tapping maple trees usually come with hooks so you can attach your sap buckets easily. When I say sap bucket, you can really use any container, as long as you keep an eye on it when it starts to get full. You can use plastic milk containers, coffee cans, plastic buckets, etc. Really whatever is sanitary and free to be filled is game. You will need to either make a lid or have a bucket already with a lid to keep out any debris from the trees and animals who may be attracted to the sweet sticky sap.



Step 5:Boil 'er Down!
Start boiling your sap in 6 gallon or 8 gallon pots on an outdoor fire or stove. You can do this in your kitchen, but it does take a lot of time to cook the sap down, and it produces a lot of vapors and steam. Boil the sap, skim off any foam that starts to produce, and make sure that you don't leave the sap in there too long. You can leave the sap boiling away unwatched for the first couple hours where the sap is reduced to half it's size. Then as it cooks down more, you need to be watchful to make sure it doesn't boil over, get too dark, or boil off too much so that it will crystalize once put into jars. You can test your sap for density with regular sugaring tests or a hydrometer, sugaring thermometer or candy thermometer. Boil your sap until your candy thermometer reads 219º F at Sea Level. For every 550 ft. above sea level that you are located, add 1 degree.



The age old test to see if your syrup is finished, is taking a spoon scoop of the liquid and pour back into the pot. If the liquid sticks to the bottom of your ladel, you have syrup!



Canning Instructions for Maple Syrup



It's not recommended to just have your syrup in containers in the fridge without canning first. They can still get moldy and go bad and yes you will cry when realizing you spent 5 hours cooking down something that now looks absolutely putrid.



So instead, can it!



Instructions:



Heat your syrup back up to a boil and then immediately pour it boiling hot into already hot sterile canning glass jars. Pint jars are a good size to use and just fill them up to 1/4"just below the top. Seal tightly with heated canning lids. Your jars will seal themselves up tight, no need for the water bath. This is a completely sterile, tried and proven way of canning maple syrup that has been done for over a century.

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