2014 Maple Syrup Season Part 20
I was sad when I realized that the best thing for our family was the discontinuance of our CSA. All the same, it was a peace-filled realization.
I recently had an experience that was easily the saddest, most disheartening experience of my homesteading life to date. Imagine my dismay when – three days before I was to process it – I discovered that 50 gallons of pure maple sap stored in my garage was… spoiled. Sour. Unusable for syrup.
Saddest. Moment. Ever.
All of my sweet (literally) self-sufficient dreams drowned in a 5-gallon food-grade bucket of sour-smelling, cloudy liquid. Last year we had syrup from our sap but processed by Papa. This year I was really looking forward to the self-affirming experience of collecting and processing my own syrup.
Fortunately, Papa always has an abundance of syrup (he still has a ton left over from two years ago) so hopefully he’ll pity us enough to donate this year’s syrup.
Meanwhile, the thought of letting 50 gallons of maple sap go to waste made me want to vomit. I came inside… sat with my head in my hands and thought…
Maybe I could turn it into vinegar?
After an evening of frantic internet research, that’s just what I did. (Or, at least, what I made a plan to do.) Although the web is light on details about making maple vinegar, I did find enough direction to develop a plan for several different approaches. In a nutshell, they include…
Method 1: Diluted maple syrup mixed with wine-making yeast
Method 2: Maple sap with a Mother of Vinegar added
Method 3: Au natural (nothing added)
Because Method 1 involves diluted maple syrup, I decided to go ahead and process some of our sour sap all the way down to syrup. That way I could still experience (and show you) the process. What I didn’t expect is that as we got started, the batch really didn’t look (or smell) that bad. Coincidentally, Papa and I decided to process all but the 3 cloudiest buckets (15 gallons) down to maple syrup. The result is a very dark syrup that initially tastes just fine but leaves a strange after-taste. I’ve not yet dared to try it on pancakes.
I promise I’ll share all the details of my maple vinegar-making plan with you in a future post. Meanwhile, this post is dedicated to explaining and showing the process of taking sap to syrup.
Processing Maple Syrup 2014
As a refresher, maple sap becomes syrup when you remove the high water content, leaving behind the concentrated sugary content. The most popular way to do this is by boiling the sap to evaporate the water. The sugar content of sap varies based on many factors, but in general it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. For the homesteading maple syrup maker, a backyard evaporator is used to boil off all of that water. The evaporator can be as simple as a gas grill or it can take on a much more complicated form. For all the finer details on how an evaporator should function and how you can make one (along with how-to videos for several options) check out this post.
I was fortunate to be able to use Papa’s evaporator, featured in a post from 2013 that you can find here. Here’s how the process works.
Step 1: Start a fire in the evaporator. Warm the evaporator pans by filling them with water to boil. The design of Papa’s evaporator is much like a rocket stove which means that the temperatures are very hot and even most of the smoke is burned before exhaust exits the chimney. (Notice the lack of smoke coming from the chimney in the picture below?) That’s a good thing because it reduces the opportunity for a smoky-taste to make its way into your syrup. Adding a fan near the entrance of the fire pit increasing the heat – kind of like electronic billows.
Step 2: Once the pans are warm, dump the water and add the sap. As the sap boils, the amount of liquid in each pan will obviously begin to reduce. Once the sap in all three pans has boiled and reduced adequately, ladle or dump the sap from the first pan (farthest from the chimney) into the middle pan and refill the first pan. The goal is to always keep the third pan (closest to the chimney) at a rolling boil while the first and second pans are used for warming sap to the boiling point and then ladling or pouring it forward into the next pan. In this way cold sap is never added to the final pan and the process is not slowed.
You can see in this picture that the color of the sap darkens the warmer and longer it boils.
Step 3: This process continues until all of the sap has made its way to the final pan and has reduced down to about 1 gallon. (In this case, about half the pan.) In our case, the sap was placed in a container and kept cool overnight before moving forward to the next step. However if you’d like to get everything done in one day, you’ll want to move right to filtering and the final boil. Of course you don’t have to use exactly the same equipment described below, but all of these things should be accessible (or affordable) for most backyard sugarin’ folks.
We filled a large electric coffee maker with water and turned it on. (You’ll want to do this when all of the sap has made it to the final pan but has not reduced down to one gallon yet.) This warms the coffee maker. During this process we also warmed the first filter by placing it inside the coffee maker, with the lid closed. We also heated a 1-gallon pot on the grill by boiling water within it.
Step 4: When the sap has been reduced to about 1 gallon, it should be filtered. We poured the hot sap through the hot filter (purchased here) using this fancy contraption Papa built. Using hot sap and a warm filter helps to speed the filtering process.
Once the sap is filtered, ditch the boiling water on the grill and replace it with the sap.
Step 5: Boil the sap on the grill, starting on high heat but keeping an eye on it to adjust the temperature. You may be able to keep it on high for a couple of hours, but as it reduces, using heat that is too high will result in a boil over… trust me…
The closer the sap gets to syrup form, the lower the heat you’ll want so that you can use more control. There are a few ways to find out when you’ve arrived at the syrup stage. We used two. First, if you use a ladle to pour out the sap, you’ll find that the final drops collect into a slow-pouring u-shape along the bottom of the spoon. We also used a handy thermometer called a hydrometer designed for maple-syrup making (get one here). It measures the Brix (sugar content) and Baumé (density) of the solution. You’ve arrived at the syrup stage when the hydrometer measures 66 on the Brix scale.
Papa had this handy contraption (purchased here) to measure without getting too sticky.
Step 6: While the final boil was happening, we warmed a second set of filters in the coffee maker. The first filter was identical to the filter we used for our sap and the second filter is a more heavy-duty version that filters on a finer level. Filtering finished sap is important because gritty, bad-tasting niter (sugar sand) develops during the boiling process. For great syrup, you’ll want to remove sugar sand. I recommend doing this through filtering while your batch is still hot, but you can also allow it to sit over night and skim off the sediment-free syrup into a new container. The trouble with skimming is that if you want to store your syrup long term, you’ll need to can it and that requires boiling-hot syrup. And that requires re-boiling your syrup, which may cause it to drop past the optimal stage you reached at your final boil. (Note: You can also freeze maple syrup or keep it in the refrigerator for up to 2 months.)
When our syrup was ready, we drained the hot water from the coffee maker into a 5-gallon bucket and quickly poured the sap into the double-layered filters. We then quickly put the lid back on. All of this quickly happened because the syrup will only filter when it’s hot, and we were trying to retain as much heat as possible. (Imagine trying to double-filter cold maple syrup?!?) As it filtered, the syrup began to fill the bottom of the warm (still turned on) coffee maker. It’s important not to squeeze the filters because that could force through sediment or unsuitably enlarge the holes in your filter. We did however gently twist the filter and lift it so that the syrup made contact with parts of the filter that weren’t already saturated, thus increasing flow toward the end.
Step 7: Once the syrup had been filtered, it was easy to pour from the coffee maker into our bottles. Because the syrup is hot (must be at least 180*) it can go directly into sterile class jars and then receive canning lids. Be sure to tip your jars on their side or upside down so that the hot syrup will sterilize the lids.
Meanwhile the hot water poured from the coffee maker to the bucket can be used to clean your filters for next time.
Viola! Maple syrup! From the 35 gallons of sap we boiled we ended up with just shy of 1 gallon of syrup. Who knows how much of this syrup will make its way onto pancakes and how much will be destined for a vinegar experiment. Either way, I feel much more confident about taking my sap from start to finish next year!