Free Maple Syrup, part I
20 February, 2011
About this time each year, late in the winter, the weather takes an important turn that you might not really notice: While the night-time temperatures remain below freezing, daytime temps creep to above freezing. It is during this cycling of freezing and warming that the trees begin to awaken. In the warmth of the day, the sap begins to flow beneath the bark, rising from the roots toward the branches.
This is the time of year for tapping maple trees and boiling it down into syrup. The old-timers call it sugarin’. I just call it making syrup. Regardless, this brief season is one of my favorite times of the year, and one of the first indication that spring is indeed on its way.
The process of making syrup or sugar from maple sap is an ancient tradition, unique to this region (north-eastern US, eastern Canada). There is reportedly no other place on earth where the conditions are suitable for tapping maple trees for syrup. So if you have a maple tree or two (the trunks have to be at least a foot in diameter), consider yourself blessed, and think about partaking in the gift that you can receive from them. They don’t have to be Sugar maple, by the way – I have three Silver, and a couple of Norway maple that I tap each year, and they produce delicious syrup).
The process is time consuming, for sure, but pretty simple. No fancy or expensive equipment is needed. Most of what you need you either have already, or you have a good chance of finding at a garage sales for next to nothing. The exception is the spouts for tapping the trees, which you could make if you really wanted to, but the real ones cost less than $2 each and probably work better than anything you could make.
Simply put, we’re talking about two steps: 1) collect the sap. 2) boil the sap. Oversimplified, perhaps – but that’s it.
It’s the second step –the boiling part- is the one that will prove your patience. Essentially, the goal is to remove water and, in so doing, concentrate the sugars in the sap. The amount of time needed for boiling will vary, but in general, it takes 10-13 gallons of sap to make one quart of syrup, so you might imagine the amount of boiling we’re talking about. There are some technical details to learn, but nothing too difficult. Mainly, you just need to know how to not overcook it or let it boil over. It will take a while (many hours), but remember that it doesn’t all have to be done at once.
Whether you’re cooking over gas or wood, it’s best as an outdoor activity, though technically there’s no reason you can’t do it inside. For a good portion of the process, it doesn’t require constant attention, but as the process moves along, you can’t step away for too long. Embrace the quiet time. Sit and think, read, pray, breath deeply and enjoy the outdoors. If you have kids, it’s also a great opportunity to teach, and to simply spend time together. My 5-year-old loves helping, now – he looks forward to going out to collect the sap each day when I get home.
Then, of course, there’s the fruit of the labor. In terms of taste, there’s no substitute for real maple syrup, and I swear that it tastes even better when you made it yourself. Not to mention that Grade A, amber Vermont maple syrup can fetch around $1/oz, compared to Aunt Jemima at more like .20/oz.
The good news is that you can make your own real maple syrup for next to nothing (this is supposed to be a blog about saving money, right?). After the small initial investment, my only yearly expense is the propane gas I use for cooking fuel. I can finish off a gallon of syrup for around $20-25 in LP gas, which puts my homemade syrup in the price-range of the Aunt Jemima. And it’s fun.
The tapping season already being well underway (I tapped my trees 2 weeks ago), it may be a bit late for you to get started this year. If interested, though, now is the time to learn about it – then spend the summer gathering the items you’ll need (yard sales can provide some of the main items, like pans), and have everything ready to go for next year.
I’d also recommend that you visit a sugaring event, like this one in Basking Ridge:
Stay tuned; I’ll be posting more details & pics as I go through each step of the process this year.
If you’d like to learn more, feel free to ask me & I’ll be happy to share my experiences. If you really want to learn the ins-and-outs of the process from a seasoned expert, the book Backyard Sugarin’ by Rink Mann, is by far my favorite book on the subject. It has all the info you need, conveyed in plain language… clear & thorough instructions along with classic ‘yankee ingenuity.’ The author encourages thrift, creativity and improvisation, like recycling milk jugs to collect sap instead of buying sap buckets, and scouring yard-sales to find substitutes for commercially available evaporator pans and utensils. Definitely a book for the thrifty and practical. Buy it here.
If you decide to go ahead and purchase any supplies, I highly recommend ‘the maple guys.’ I’ve bought all of my supplies (not that it’s a tremendous amount) from them and have experienced nothing but excellent service and good prices. Go to http://www.mapleguys.com