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