So, you want to make your own maple syrup.
And I can understand why: The golden-amber, sticky-sweet pancake topper is romantically delicious. Maple syrup is the perfect start to a snowy day and a divine dessert flavor. It’s the stuff of children’s stories, of breakfasts out with friends, and of picturesque homestead portraits.
You may want to try your hand at making maple syrup to save money. Store-bought syrup is delightful, but it’s also rather pricey. In 2017, the average cost of maple syrup in the United States was $35/gallon.
Or perhaps you want to make your own syrup simply because you love homemade food and the DIY process. Maple sugaring certainly won’t disappoint: the process of tapping trees, collecting the sap and processing it, then finally canning and enjoying fresh homemade syrup is a unique, seasonal experience that you’ll come to look forward to every year.
Can you make maple syrup at home?
Absolutely! While it may seem daunting at first, the process of making syrup is actually quite simple. It just takes some maple trees, time and patience, 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.
(Color and flavor variation in homemade syrup is quite normal! We actually prefer the darker, stronger stuff.)
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How to Make Maple Syrup Step by Step
1) Identify Maple Trees
You’ll need one little thing to make real maple syrup: maple trees. If you’re not sure which trees you can use to make maple syrup, you’ll first need to identify the sugar maples on your property.
If you’re not set on it being specifically maple syrup, there are a number of other trees you can tap for sweet sap, such as birch, black walnut, alder, sycamore, and more. The ratio of sap to syrup and the flavor of the end result will be quite different depending on which tree you choose to tap.
However, for today’s post, we are going to focus on the most common choice for maple syrup making: the sugar maple tree.
You can identify sugar maples by looking at three main components of the tree:
Note that the characteristics of the maple tree will look different at times, depending on its age and what season in which you are trying to identify the tree.
Sugar Maple Leaves
The leaves of the sugar maple usually have five lobes. Each lobe has smooth “U” shaped spaces in between points, or teeth, along the edges of the leaf. The leaves are deep green in color, and turn red, orange, or yellow in the fall.
Note that there are other common types of maple trees with features that look quite different. Visit this post for a detailed exploration of sugar maple tree identification.
Sugar Maple Bark
If you’re identifying maple trees in the winter, the bark and twigs will serve as your main identification method.
Sugar maple trees generally have greyish-brown or dark brown bark. The bark has deep grooves up and down it, and often looks shaggy as the plates of bark peel off.
The twigs of a sugar maple are small and reddish-brown. In the winter, they have small cone-shaped buds that come off the edges of the twig on opposite sides and one more larger bud at the tip of the twig.
Sugar Maple Fruit
The fruit of the sugar maple are the characteristic “helicopter” shaped seeds that you dropped from up high as a child. They are green at first and turn brown in the fall. Two seeds are joined together at the center of the fruit, and two longer leaves come down on either side, forming a horseshoe shape.
2) Gather Sugaring Supplies
I have a beginner’s checklist for making maple syrup where I discuss the necessary supplies for sugaring. For your reference, I will also list basic supplies here. You will need:
- A drill.
- A drill bit that is just slightly smaller than the spiles you choose.
- A hammer.
- Tapping spiles that go into the tree.
- Tubing to carry the sap from spile to collection container.
- Sap collection containers such as special sap buckets, 5 gallon plastic buckets, milk jugs, or coffee cans.
- Something in which to boil the sap: a large, wide bottomed pot or sheet tray, a crock pot, or even a small evaporator.
- A candy thermometer (nice, but not necessary).
- Something with which to filter the sap (cheesecloth, coffee filters, etc.).
- Something in which to store the syrup. We love our canning jars!
3) Tap your trees in early spring.
When should you tap maple trees? If you’re new to sugaring, you may not know that maple syrup is something you can only get for a few short weeks out of each year.
Trees should be tapped in early spring, when nighttime temperatures are below freezing and daytime temperatures are above freezing. This is when the sap will be flowing.
For this step, 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.
4) Collect the sap.
You can use any number of different collection containers. While iconic metal sap buckets are certainly available, they’re also expensive.
For more frugal alternatives, we have used well-washed milk jugs and plastic five-gallon buckets with lids. Larger maple trees will produce quite a bit of sap, so be prepared with large collection containers.
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.
If you have a lot of trees, you may eventually want to consider investing in more tubing that leads to a larger collection container. However, large set-ups like this are usually a bit more involved (and pricier) than the beginner-friendly backyard sugaring operation we’re talking about here.
Here’s what our current set-up looks like:
One bucket hanging from a nail on the tree. Ideally, there shouldn’t be a nail in the tree.
Two 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.)
Once you have a bucket full of sap (or many buckets full), you’ll want to move on to the next step.
5) Boil the sap.
Each day, we go collect whatever sap is in the buckets and bring it up to the house for boiling down into syrup. You can filter your sap once now before you begin boiling, though you will need to filter again before finishing it off regardless.
We have tried several different backyard methods for doing boiling our sap:
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 extremely inefficient.
4) Cinder block evaporator
This is by far the best method we’ve used so far, and the one I’d recommend to a beginning sugarer. 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.
Here 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.
Be sure to filter out any bugs or dirt that may have gotten in the sap when you bring it inside to finish!
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 the bubble party down to a reasonable level.
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!
6) Can the maple syrup.
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.
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 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.
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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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.
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!
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!
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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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.
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. 😉
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!
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.
Can use a water-bath canning pot on an outdoor propane burner to boil down the sap??
I don’t know what it’s made of. It’s basically black with white freckles.
Yes, I don’t see why not! 🙂
We did that this year, using a stock pot and a steam pan, and the issue we found was that the wind affected the efficiency of the flame; we had to come up with a way of blocking the wind. Even once we did that, we were still using a lot of propane, more than it would have cost to just buy maple syrup in bulk from local producers (at $50/gal in 2022.) We plan to do the cinder blocks next year.
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!!
Hi! So it is way more efficient to do the cinder block fire pit? I am thinking about boiling down with the steam pans on my gas grill. . . what do you think?
You know, I’ve never tried it that way myself– but give it a go and see what you think! I think a lot of it depends on how much sap you want to do at once. Best of luck, and let me know how it turns out!
We use turkey fryers purchased just for this, seems to work fine, anyone else?
I’ve been using the cinder block evaporator with a chimney. I use 2, 6 inch deep pans. I also use welding gloves to lift and maneuver the pans (as well as an N95 mask and goggles to minimize smoke in eyes and lungs). I tap 17 trees and usually get 1 1/2 to 2 gallons of syrup.