Making Maple Syrup: Tapping, Processing, & Canning

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Have you ever wanted to make maple syrup but don’t know where to begin? We were in that same position several years ago. We knew syrup was pricey but we had maple trees on the property. While it seemed daunting at first, the process of making syrup is actually quite simple. It just takes time and a few supplies.

Today, I am hoping to give you a brief overview of how to make maple syrup, or, as it’s often called, “sugaring.” It takes a bit to fall into a rhythm that fits with the rest of your life schedule, but the sticky, sweet, delicious results are well worth the effort.

Making Maple Syrup(Color and flavor variation in homemade syrup is quite normal! We actually prefer the darker, stronger stuff.)

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First thing’s first: identify the sugar maples on your property. Next, you can read my beginner’s checklist for making maple syrup to see what supplies, if any, you might need to purchase for the job.

Step one: Tapping

First, you have to access all that delicious sap. You’ll need spiles, tubing, and a corresponding wood drill bit. The spile is what goes into the tree, and the tubing is what carries the sap down to the bucket.

You want a drill bit that’s just slightly smaller than the spile is at its wide point, so that the spile fits snugly into the tree. Measure accordingly. (Ours was 5/8″.) Drill your hole & insert your spile, perhaps with a little gentle tapping to help it fit securely. Disclaimer: my hubby always does this part each year, so you’ll have to direct any questions about it to him. 😉March 2015 060

Here’s our spile sitting snugly in our maple tree.

This whole set up is referred to as a “tap.” Small trees should only have one tap, larger ones may have two or three.

Step Two: Collecting

You can use any number of different collection containers. Last year, we used well-washed milk jugs, and this year, we switched to plastic five-gallon buckets with lids so we wouldn’t have so much overflow. Whatever container you use, make sure the sap will flow into it without spillage. We use inexpensive tubing to channel the sap from spile to bucket. Some spiles have hooks to hang the bucket on directly so you don’t need the tubing. You can get a starter spile and tubing set here.

Here’s what our current set-up looks like:

March 2015 065One bucket hanging from a nail on the tree. We probably should remove the nail and let it sit on the ground so we don’t damage the tree as much though!

March 2015 069Two taps headed to one bucket for easier collection. If you have enough tubing, you can connect multiple trees this way. (Note also this bucket is on the ground, so we avoid nailing into the tree.)

Step Three: Boiling

Each day, we go collect whatever sap is in the buckets and bring it up to the house for boiling down into syrup. We have a couple of different methods for doing this:

1) Crock pots- While crock pots don’t boil the sap very efficiently, they DO allow you to begin cooking the sap without needing to watch it carefully. We put a couple of large crock pots on our porch (without the lids) to begin slowly cooking the sap. This is also a good holding place for the sap until we can get to boiling it down further.

March 2015 059

2) Indoor boiling- Definitely not the preferred method. Last year we boiled most of our sap in a roasting pan over two burners. It turns your house into a rainforest. The walls don’t like that much moisture, nor does the furniture. But if you don’t have any other options, it will do- just open the windows, turn on the fans, and hope for the best. 🙂 (Note: we DO bring our sap indoors to finish it when it’s close to the end. I just don’t recommend doing it for hours on end for weeks at a time.)

3) Wood stove boiling- The second year we made maple syrup, my husband put together a makeshift evaporator from an old, rusty wood stove, a bit of chimney, and a big tin can for a cap. We purchased two large steam pans to place directly on top of the stove to hold the syrup. This was MUCH better than indoor boiling, but still not extremely efficient.

march 2015 maple syrup 007

4) Cinder block evaporator- This is by far the best method we’ve used so far. My husband made a simple rectangle out of cinder blocks on our driveway, built a fire inside of it, and hung our steam trays on the edges so they are directly over the flames. We’ve been able to boil down 25 gallons of sap in an afternoon this way- not too bad for not having a real evaporator!

March 2015 more syrup 008

Here’s the set up- my hubby builds a fire underneath, then closes the two front cinder blocks.

March 2015 more syrup 018Here are three pans boiling away! This really did the job well for us.

Whatever your method, you’ve got to boil the sap down til it develops a golden/amber color and gets nice and bubbly. We usually bring it inside for finishing on the stove top at this point. We make sure to filter out any bugs or dirt that may have been in the sap as we pour it into the pot inside.

This stage is when you really need to watch the sap. It will boil over on you if you’re not careful! If the bubbles keep trying to escape from the pot, throw in a pat of butter. It will keep it from the party to a reasonable level of wild.

Start checking the temperature with a candy thermometer frequently. It must reach 219 F, or 7 degrees above boiling if you live at high altitudes. Once it is 219, it’s done! (It might not look very syrupy right now, but it will thicken some as it cools.)

March 2015 more syrup 016

What happens if you overcook your maple syrup? You get maple candy. Or taffy. Or sugar. Or burnt blackness. It’s worth paying attention at the end to make sure you get what you looking for!

Step four: Canning

The nicest part of maple syrup canning is that you don’t have to process the jars in a water bath canner at all. Phew, one less step! When your maple syrup is getting towards the end, sanitize your canning jars, lids, and rings. To sanitize, put the clean jars in your oven at 200 F for 20 mins, and put the lids and rings in very hot/simmering water for the same time.

Once the syrup reaches 219, take it off the heat. Filter the syrup again as you ladle it into the hot and sterilized jars, leaving 1/4″ head space at the top. Place lids and rings securely, and turn your jars upside down for 30 seconds to make sure the lid is quite hot. Turn right side up and let cool. The jars will seal themselves without processing! Thanks to my awesome master food preserver cousin for confirming this miracle for me.

Step Five: Eat it.

Admittedly, the easiest step. Maple sugaring is a lot of work, but it’s such a fun project! It’s less expensive than purchasing real maple syrup, and MUCH tastier and healthier than the corn syrup “maple” flavored products in the store.

If you’ve got maple trees, give maple sugaring a shot! Let me know if you have any questions along the way- we are still learning each year we do it, but we’ll do our best to answer!

How to Make Maple Syrup

18 thoughts on “Making Maple Syrup: Tapping, Processing, & Canning

  1. bobbi dougherty

    How much syrup, on average, do you get each year? I would love to do this one day. We live in FL though and Maple trees don;t really do well here, lol.

    1. Abi Post author

      Last year, we had 16 taps and got over 4 gallons of syrup during the season. (We might have had more, but accidentally burned a couple batches!) It’s definitely enough to keep our family in syrup all year, plus some to give away too. If you ever move north you’ll have to try it! 🙂

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  6. Dan Dostal

    This is my second year in making my own maple syrup. Last year sap was given to me and my finished product was great. This year I’m tapping trees myself and have run into a couple of issues. First is my sap this year is much lighter than last years. Unfortunately I do not know for certain what kind of maples I’m tapping. Best guess is silver maple and possibly box elder. Don’t know if maple type has an effect on color. Second issue is my syrup is crystalizing in my jars. I’m canning right away after final boil while syrup is still hot. Jars are sealing nicely. Just looking for any answers or help. Thank you in advance and I look forward to hearing from you.

    1. Abi Post author

      Hi Dan! It’s great that you’re trying to tap yourself this year! We are just backyard tappers so perhaps a commercial sugarer could answer you more thoroughly, but here are my best answers from our experience and research.

      1. The type of maple does affect what kind of syrup you will end up with, because different trees have different sugar content. However, silver and box elder maples are still common trees that can be tapped for syrup. While it’s hard to perfectly ID trees in the winter, try checking them out when the leaves start coming out. That way you will know for next year exactly what kinds of trees you have.
      2. We talked to some folks at a local sugar shack, and they told us that the color of the syrup is largely due to what kinds of natural (unharmful) bacteria are in the tree that year, so that may be what’s affecting the lightness for you.
      3. We had one year with a lot of crystallization too! I’m pretty certain that’s just a matter of sugar concentration. It could be that you boiled it just past the syrup point (219 degrees F), or it could just be the particular batch. Regardless, it won’t hurt at all. Just scoop it out and call it maple rock candy. 🙂

      Hope this is somewhat helpful! Thanks for coming by!

  7. KT Wolf

    Thanks so much for sharing your set-up and all these details!

    I’m on my second year of making syrup from ash-leaved maple, commonly known as box-elder trees. Living in a city, these are thought of as “trash trees,” so I can tap in a public non-conservation park and no one cares. My only concern is making sure my containers are somewhat camouflaged from the sight of passers-by. I like the box-elder sap so much more than store-bought maple syrup; I don’t even know what it is about maple syrup that I don’t like, but whatever it is, our own homemade syrup doesn’t have it.

    It’s a poor year here for sap, and I don’t expect to get more than half a gallon of syrup this time around. We had a very short transition from frozen-solid to warm spring weather, with only about 7 times that the night was below freezing and the day was sunny and 40’s/50’s. But it’s still worthwhile; after a long cold winter, it gets me out into the sunshine every day! We’ll send off a 4-ounce bottle to my uncle as a gift, and the rest will go into making my daughter’s acorn cookies, and flavoring some venison, acorn, and mushroom soups. Nothing better!

    I love the cinderblock oven! Some day, when I’m not in an apartment, that’ll be on my list of cool things to play with! Currently, I set a pot on a single-burner electric, plugged into a 3-hour timer, right next to the fire-escape door of my apartment. The steam generally goes out the door, rather than into my bedroom. Having it on a timer means that I won’t forget it and burn a batch–one 3-hour boil equals about 2″ of water driven off. So as long as there’s at least 2.5″ of sap to start with, no worries as I go about my day.

    I came here looking for the right temperature to boil the syrup to, and there you have it, thanks so much. Now I must go look at your other posts, because this one was so useful!

    1. Abi Post author

      Hi there! Thanks so much for your comment and for stopping by. 🙂 I’m glad the post was helpful to you. It sounds like you have a really great little set up, right where you are! I love hearing about how people are making use of the resources around them, even when they’re just in a tiny apartment! Keep up the great work. Let me know how your syrup turns out!

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  9. Alan

    I plan on doing some back yard sugaring and was looking for an inexpensive arch and came across your cinder Block operation. With no obvious chimney, does the smoke from the fire come out the front and back of the pit or between the pans? What do you use to lift the pans off the fire….
    I enjoyed reading about your experience and plan to refer back to this come next February.

    1. Abi Post author

      Hi there! If the fire is burning quite hot and the air is moving through well, it’s not going to produce much smoke most of the time. (Except for when you’re putting wood on it or when it’s slowing down). But in general, if there is smoke, it exits through the front and back. To get the pans off the fire, is, to be fair, a bit risky. I generally just put on oven mitts and pick up the pan by the edges. It’s resting on cinder block, so i am not directly exposing myself to flames, but it’s not the neatest process either. Let me know if you come up with a safer system. 😉

  10. Esther Rose

    Hi! We were thinking of experimenting with an old wood stove this year too. Do you remember what the evaporation rate in gallons/hr was when you did it on the wood stove outside? Just hoping to do better than my stove or outdoor gas grill! Thanks!

    1. Abi Post author

      Hmm, that’s a really good question. Unfortunately, that’s not something I’ve ever tracked! We just keep boiling away while tending to the kids and everything else. The wood stove was pretty inefficient, though, because it wasn’t exposed that much to the flames. Doing it over open flames on the cinder blocks was much better.

  11. Joan I Champion

    We use the same kind of cinder block operation, but we use an old cast iron floor heating grate across the top and then put the pans on that. No problem lifting them off with oven mitts. We found our grate at an Antique store for $15. Also we use the pans that came in a 18 qt roaster ovens. You find them in a used store, like goodwill, the oven has been discarded. We found 2 of them and it works great!!


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