When I was growing up we used to visit a farm in New Hampshire that was owned by friends of our family. It sat high on top of a beautiful mountain and was sprawled with hundreds of acres and rolling fields for the cows to graze.
Hidden away in the woods at the base of the mountain was a small sugar house where thousands of feet of plastic tubing carried fresh sap in from the maple trees that grew down the slope of the mountain.
It was then that I learned about making maple syrup, and although I do not have hundreds of trees tapped, I make enough syrup every year to supply our family and friends. Most people are amazed to learn that it takes over 30 gallons of sap to boil down 1 gallon of maple syrup.
The effort is very well worth it because you can't buy syrup this good in the supermarket. We were fortunate enough to have hundreds of Red Maple trees on the farm when we bought it. The majority of the trees are still another 5 years or so away from being able to safely tap them without damaging the tree, so for now we harvest as much sap as we can from the trees that surround our stream and house.
I started early this year due to the fact that the temperature during the day is above freezing, while dropping below freezing at night. The key to tapping maple trees is to pay attention to the weather. The season is usually very short, so it's best to harvest as much as you can before the nights stop freezing.
For as little as $20, anyone will access to some maple trees can take up the hobby. There are many ways to create your own taps, but due to time constraints we decided to purchase taps that we can reuse every year. We also use 5 gallon buckets with lids that have holes wide enough in the top to let the sap flow in without collecting rain and bugs. Last year we paid the price because the ants and flies got at the buckets before we could harvest the majority of it.
The taps we bought are 5/16 inch in diameter, so we used a drill bit the same size so that the tap would fit right inside without having to hammer it in. You can use larger taps but we don't want to damage our trees. We connect plastic tubing from the tap and insert it into the tops of the buckets. It usually only takes a few days to fill up a 5 gallon bucket.
Since we heat our home with wood, we usually boil down the sap in a stainless steel pan on top of our wood stove. You don't want to use anything aluminium otherwise it can carry a metallic taste into the maple syrup. For this blog post I decided to move it over to the stove top since most people won't be using a wood stove.
After collecting the sap you will want to filter it to get any pieces of wood or bark out of it and bring it to a heavy boil. It will most likely take you many hours if not all day to boil 5 gallons of sap down to where it's ready to start watching the thermometer. During the boiling process you will want to spoon off any scum that floats to the surface.
The dangerous part about making maple syrup is that when it reaches a certain point in boiling where most of the water is gone, the bubbles will become really small and it will start to raise up in your pan. If you aren't there to watch it then it will likely boil over the top of your pan and stick to your stove. A key to avoiding this is by putting a very small dash of butter into the boiling sap to keep it from boiling over.
You will want to use a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature. If you boil it too much it will burn and you won't be able to use it. I use a thermometer with a built in alarm and I keep the probe and cord in the sap during the entire boiling process. I set the alarm to 216 degrees F. The syrup is done boiling when it reaches 218 F so keep a close eye on it.
While the syrup is still hot you will want to filter it one more time. I like to use cheesecloth. We store ours in jars with lids inside the refrigerator and it keeps for a very long time. It's a very fun hobby, and it just tastes delicious. We are hoping to make enough this year to give some away but we will probably eat it all before we have the chance!