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.
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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:
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.
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!