In an age of grocery stores, dancing celebrities and robotic floor sweepers, we can sometimes feel pretty far removed from our pioneer ancestors. That’s when it’s nice to be able to do something as rugged and self-sufficient as turning tree sap into food.
Yes, you too can be like the native people and early settlers who came before us by making your own pure maple syrup. Now is the perfect time to get started, because tapping (drilling the holes) is typically done in early March, a week or two prior to the onset of sap flow.
Although sugar maples (Acer saccharum) have the highest sugar content, excellent syrup can be made from any species of maple including silver maples and even boxelders. If a maple tree is in your own yard, you can get started immediately. (If it’s in your neighbor’s yard, you’ll need a flashlight, a black ski mask, and a designated lookout.)
It should be pointed out that tapping rarely does serious damage to a tree, but can induce mild tree stress, and should be considered carefully (particularly in a drought year such as this one). For this reason, young trees should be avoided. A tree should be at least 12 inches in diameter to receive one tap. An 18 inch tree can support two taps, and a 24 inch tree can support three.
The tapping process is begun by boring a 7/16 inch hole about two inches deep into the trunk of the tree at a convenient height, with a clean and sharp drill bit. The first hole should be on the south side of the tree, with any additional holes spread out on the east and west sides.
Next, make or purchase a 3 to 4 inch spout that can be tapped snugly into the hole. A spout can be made of metal pipe, plastic tubing, or wood (A short segment of stem from a young sapling works great. It takes a while to make, but makes you feel just like a real pioneer). Wimpy, non-pioneer types can purchase inexpensive metal spouts from any number of supply companies. Firmly tap the spout into the hole leaving an inch or two protruding from the tree.
Now, you will need to hang a container on the spout. This can be an ice cream pail, milk jug, etc, as long as it is clean and has a lid to keep debris out. Also, be sure your container is at least a gallon in size, unless you plan on emptying it constantly (or training a troop of neighborhood children to do this for you).
Then, the waiting begins. When daytime highs and nighttime lows oscillate around the freezing point in March and early April, sap can flow quickly. A single tap can produce several gallons per day during ideal conditions. Over the course of the season, a single tree can yield up to 30 gallons. After collecting several gallons of sap, the evaporation process can begin.
The boiling of the sap should be done outdoors with a small cook stove – never indoors (unless you are not fond of your wallpaper). Sap is 98% water, so boiling is a slow and tedious process roughly equivalent to watching paint dry. Continue adding fresh sap as water is boiled away. As nearly all of the water is boiled away, the sap will become darker and thicker.
Have a candy thermometer to check the temperature frequently. Watch it closely and don’t overboil, particularly if you are using a kitchen container you have stolen from your wife. A mistake at this stage could be costly to your syrup operation as well as your marriage. When it reaches 219 degrees, it is done and should be removed from the heat immediately.
The hot syrup may be filtered to remove tiny crystals of precipitated minerals, and clean felt or flannel work well for this. Pour the hot syrup into glass jars and tighten the metal lids. Well-sealed jars of unopened syrup can be stored at room temperature. Unsealed jars can be kept in the freezer.
Give it a try, and good luck! If you want more details and tips, the Linnaeus Arboretum is hosting an educational program about making your own maple syrup on March 2nd at 10am. Go to the gustavus.edu/arboretum link on the left to learn more.