Making Maple syrup is an annual celebration of spring, as it is one of the first wild plant foods of the year and the rising of the sap marks the beginning of the spring harvest. For the do-it-yourself tapper, it is not so much about calculating (the work to syrup ratio turns many a woodsman to purchase rather than boil, and perhaps even to the manufactured, corn syrup based, imitations) as it is about experiencing the full spectrum of early spring weather while communing with the forests and partaking in one of the most quintessentially American traditions.
For me, cooking sap is a way of remembering my first mentor who taught me of wild edibles and medicinal herbs. It is also a time to remember the Native Americans who taught early colonists how to tap Maple trees and boil the sap into syrup and sugar. It is also a great way to start off a new year with an act of self-reliance. Even if you don’t have the time or lifestyle to make syrup every year, you should be familiar with the basic principles and practices in the case of necessity. The process is rather simple, but there are several things to know and be aware of. This article will explain the basic steps of making syrup, including some information you should know about trees, the season, and the process of cooking.
When to Make Maple Syrup
When the dormant sap of trees first rises in the late winter and early spring, its sugar content is high and it is free of many of the stronger tasting constituents of the sap of a fully awakened tree. It is this sap, that rises and descends back to the roots with the warm and cold of early spring. Once the trees bud, the sap takes on bitter flavor and remains suspended in the tree, while the hole you drill to receive the sap through starts to heal up.
This year, because of regular warm spells, the sap is very watery. I have not counted the gallons I boiled or the syrup resulting from it, but I have heard a couple people say that a local paper reported that the ratio was around 70 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. Good cold winters followed by ideal spring conditions (such as a March, in my area, with lots of warm days well above freezing alternating with cold nights well below freezing), produce much sweeter sap than warm winters. We had sap flow all year and by mid February people were tapping trees and getting good sap flow. Often, it is still much too cold in February for much sugaring. Generally, a good year starts off with Sugar Maple yielding around 1 gallon of sap for 35 gallons of syrup. The average for Sugar Maple is said to be 40 to 1. The average for Red Maple is 60 to 1. In spite of the watery sap, the syrup still tastes delicious!
Which Trees to Tap
Generally, syrup is made from Maple trees. However, many other types of trees were tapped by Native Americans, including Birch, Ash, Hickory, and Black Walnut. The ideal tree is Sugar Maple. Quite a lot of syrup is made from Red Maple. Silver Maple, Ash-Leaf Maple (Box Elder), and others can also be used.
Maple trees are relatively easy to pick out. One distinct characteristic of Maples is that they have opposite branching. When looking at the buds or branch silhouettes, you can see that the buds are formed directly opposite each other and the branches tend to remain that way (of course, here and there one of two opposite branches breaks off, but overwhelmingly the opposite branch arrangement is obvious). Most other trees have alternate branch arrangement, where the branches come from one side then the other, or spiral around, so that they are alternating, rather than opposite. A third type, such as is seen in many evergreens, is the whorled arrangement, in which several branches spread out from a certain point, or node.
The only other trees in my area besides Maple that have opposite leaves are Ash trees. Ash are easy to tell apart because, having compound leaves, the branches are rather stout (the smaller branching taking place in the deciduous stem of the compound leaf). Since Maple have only simple leaves, they need more finely divided branches.
Maple bark is distinct, but difficult to describe and highly variable. Red Maples develop a much more shaggy appearance in older specimens, while Sugar Maple has its distinct folds. Red Maples have large red buds, while those of Sugar Maple are smaller and brown. Sugar Maple prefers upland, more exposed areas. Red Maple prefers moist areas and is also known as Swamp Maple. (Sugar Maple is known as Hard Maple and Red as Soft Maple because of the density of the wood. Sugar Maple is good firewood.)
Besides the sugar content of the sap, Red Maple often doesn’t flow as well as Sugar because of the cooler shady areas it tends to grow. Generally, people try to tap on the south side of the tree of trees with good southern exposure. This is because on an average year, the trees that warm up the easiest run the best for syrup productions. However, if you are tapping the same trees year after year, you will want to spiral around the tree with the taps each year to avoid damaging the “sweet spot”.
Tapping the Trees
I use a non-electric drill to make the holes for my spiles. It is a traditional tool, works well, is much more peaceful than a power drill, and doesn’t run out of battery power. The holes are drilled so that they are a little deeper than the spile will need to go (you don’t want to smash it into the back of the hole) and at a little bit of a downward slant so the sap doesn’t stagnate in the back of the hole. When you hammer the tap, or spile, into the hole, take care not to split the tree. If you split the tree, sap will run out of the crack and less through your spile into the sap bucket. I listen for a change in tone as I tap. When the hollow thud turns to a crisp note, I know the spile is seated tightly.
Hang your bucket, cover with the lid, and, if the weather is right, enjoy the pings of the drops of sap landing in the empty buckets.
Boiling Maple Sap
Cooking of the sap is best done in a shallow pan, for surface area. Bring the sap to a good boil. As it gets cooking and for a little while after it is boiling impurities will rise to the top in the form of foam. Use a sieve to scoop the foam from the boiling sap. Repeat this until it is cooking well without abundant foam production. Every time you add sap, you will need to repeat the process of removing impurities as they foam to the surface.
Another type of foam marks the end of the process. Once the sugar concentration gets to a certain point, which depends also on the temperature, it turns to foam. This is a very important point, for if you are not carefully watching towards the end, you could miss this stage as the syrup all turns to foam and bubbles out of the pan. Many people like to finish the process inside. It is particularly dangerous to leave almost finished syrup unattended in your home. It could foam over and cause some problems. This second foam, which marks the sugar concentration of syrup, is not to be removed with the sieve – it will simply calm back down to syrup once taken off the flame.
Once cooled, the syrup should be poured into large jars and let settle so that the sediment can sink to the bottom. You can then pour the clear syrup off the top. It might then be left to settle again, to remove any more sediment or sugar sand. Often, people like to filter the syrup. It can then be jarred.
With time, and sometimes quite quickly with watery syrup, mold can develop. In order to recover moldy syrup simply bring to a simmer again and skim the mold off the top. Let it simmer for a bit, being careful not to let it foam over, and skim repeatedly to make sure the syrup is heated up well and the impurities are completely removed.
I use the old fashioned galvanized buckets. Many people today use plastic equipment, including plastic hose linked together to replace buckets at each tree. I have often wondered about ways to make syrup without these specialty spiles and buckets. Natives would sometimes collect sap through “v” shaped cuts, rather than holes with spiles. It is, of course, possible to fashion spile with wood, bamboo, or other plants.
The process of cooking becomes much more challenging without metal. The large, flat, pans used for sap boiling are perfect for the job. I can’t easily imagine trying to boil without it. Native people used hot rocks to boil sap, and apparently for making sugar. I am sure they had ingenious ways for doing so, but any quantity of production will be much easier (and still plenty of work) with metal.
When I first began making Maple syrup, I was warned not to drink the sap. However, this old knowledge was either misguided or the wisdom, for better or worse, has been forgotten. Today, there are many companies bottling the sap itself for commercial sale. It is being promoted as a sort of northern version of Coconut water. Sap, especially the first of the season, is indeed delicious. It has a noticeably sweet taste and is otherwise clean and crisp like water. Besides sugar, it has significant mineral content. It is also enjoyable to use the partially concentrated sap for making tea and oatmeal. So, really, there are many ways to enjoy Maple sap, straight from the tree, during the cooking process, and as syrup.
Even if making Maple syrup is not much of an option, sap is a potentially important clean water substitute. Weather permitting and without a good water source, it could be possible to tap a tree in the spring and collect the sap for cooking and drinking. I mostly use 3 gallon buckets on the trees and on good days they can overflow.
One year I made some syrup from Black Birch when boiling from a stand of Red Maple. The Maple ran for a couple weeks before the Birch started. The Birch continued after the Red Maple had stopped. The Black Birch produced copious amounts of sap. Similarly, the Black Walnut that we tapped this season, though it dripped a little when first drilled it did not run much at first, when the Sugar Maple were productive, but then started to run well. So, the staggered timing of the various tree’s sap flow is significant. Knowing when which trees tend to run could help you collect sap beyond the season of any one species.
One final thought about Maple syrup- pancakes! Since much of the delight in Maple syrup is in gathering food from the trees, I especially like to include other ingredients from the trees when eating it. One of my favorites is acorn pancakes. Properly prepared acorns are delicious and make very tasty pancakes. I also like to use Slippery Elm powder as an ingredient. (Sometimes, I simply make a gruel with Slippery Elm and Maple syrup. It is very delicious.) Walnuts can be added for additional flavor and nourishment from the trees.
The obvious drawback to Maple syrup is its high simple sugar content. For this reason, I also like to use Cinnamon at times in my pancakes. Cinnamon is known to help with blood sugar problems. Blueberries (and other dark-colored fruits) are also good, as their high antioxidant content helps offset the sugar concentration. Using such healthy ingredients makes enjoying Maple syrup a more wholesome and nourishing experience.