Making maple syrup

Red mapleI love maple syrup.  Living in the mountains of western North Carolina, I see lots of red maple trees but have yet to find a group of sugar maple trees.  I always  “knew” that sugar maple sap is the ingredient for maple syrup.  Until recently — when I learned that any maple tree (Acer spp.) could be used.  Since I have so many red maples (Acer rubrum), I decided to attempt maple syrup from the trees I have here.  I researched the method, decided on the tools I would need and purchased them, and began to gather the sap.

First, I placed taps in three trees (after asking guidance and permission for which trees to tap, of course).

Maple tapThen I hung the “sap saks” from the spiles.  And waited for the sap to start flowing.

Maple tapI knew I was a bit late in the season to be starting this process and I wondered if I would get any sap at all when it did not start flowing within a day . . .  or two . . .   or three or . . . .   Finally, the sap began dripping from the taps.

Maple tapFirst one tree would flow, then another.

Maple tapMaple tap

There was so little sap available at any one time, that I chose to freeze it in a large pot so it would not spoil before I had enough to work with.

Maple sapI watched the weather forecasts hoping to get enough sap to be able to boil down for syrup.  When the weather turned warmer and it didn’t look like there would be much change back to nights of below freezing temperatures, I decided to start the boiling process.  From my research, I had learned the sap to syrup ratio is 40 to 1.  That means the approximately one gallon of sap I gathered would possibly make about 1/4 cup of syrup.  I wanted to try this anyway and discover what red maple syrup would taste like.

I had purchased a commercial grade hot plate so I could boil the sap outside.  Apparently the moisture from boiling was sticky and would coat everything in the kitchen if I boiled the sap there.  I didn’t want to create an outdoor wood fire arrangement and I didn’t want to use oodles of propane, so I chose to purchase the electric hot plate.  This worked out quite well.  These photos show the status of the sap from when I first started boiling (there’s still some frozen sap in the mix) through the hours until there was a little sap left in the pan.

Maple syrup 8.13 am

8:13 am

Maple syrup 8.57 am

8:57 am

Maple syrup 9.29 am

9:29 am

Maple syrup 10.37 am

10:37 am

Maple syrup 12.40 pm

12:40 pm

Maple syrup 1.23 pm

1:23 pm

At this point, I switched to a smaller pan and monitored the level closely.

Maple syrup 1.25 pm

1:25 pm

Maple syrup 1.49 pm

1:49 pm

When it looked like about a quarter cup of syrup remained, I strained it through cheesecloth.

Maple syrup 1.51 pm

1:51 pm

Maple syrupHere’s the finished product.  Red maple syrup definitely tastes different from sugar maple syrup.  I like the flavor and have kept the uncovered cup in the refrigerator.

Maple syrupOver the subsequent weeks, I occasionally scoop up a small spoonful and taste it again.  I’m savoring it this way rather than using it quickly on a couple batches of pancakes.  Lately I’ve noticed the syrup has thickened considerably — probably from losing moisture in the refrigerator — and it even has some sugar crystals at the bottom of the cup.  The hard sugar reminds me of a childhood experience — eating a large piece of candy shaped like a sugar maple leaf which consisted solely of sugar maple syrup boiled further to make maple sugar.

Next year I plan to have more taps and start a bit earlier in the season.  The weather is so tricky that it’s truly a gamble as to whether the sap will flow sufficiently before the trees start to bud (which reportedly makes for an “off” flavor).   I’m hopeful.

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