Homemade Pure Maple Syrup Part 23
Last week I shared that we’ve been collecting maple sap for making our own maple syrup. It has been a great family-time endeavor and the first step – collecting maple sap – couldn’t be simpler. To learn how to collect your own maple sap, click here.
Our first batch of sap (10 gallons) has already been turned into 3 pints of golden, delicious maple syrup. (And a pint of that maple syrup has already found its way into a batch of oatmeal cookies!)
From my perspective, the second part of the process (boiling sap to convert it to maple syrup) has been pretty easy too. That’s because my father-in-law (hereafter lovingly referred to as “Papa”) did all the work. This is Papa’s third year making homemade maple syrup and he’s figure out a thing or two about how to make it work. You can learn from his experience (along with other tidbits I’ve gathered from the web and a book called Backyard Sugarin’: A Complete How-To Guide by Rink Mann) to discover how to make your own syrup too.
To start, I’d like to give you a general overview of how the sap-to-syrup process works. Put simply, you need to:
- Collect sap from maple trees.
- Boil sap so that the water evaporates and the sugary syrup remains.
Easy-peasy, right? Essentially, it is. But there are nuances to boiling sap that are critical to understand if you’re going to end up with maple syrup instead of a gooey, burned mess. As Rink Mann puts it:
“the process involves boiling the sap so that the water in the sap evaporates off in the form of steam, leaving the sugar behind in the boiling pan. Sounds simple, doesn’t it, and it really is, although at certain stages of the process , particularly as you’re getting your brew close to being syrup, there can be terrifying moments. Remember, we’re talking about starting with, say, 33 gallons of sap and ending with 1 gallon of syrup.”
I talked about this briefly in my last post, but thinking ahead about how and where you’re going to store your sap is important. Why? First, because sap can spoil and needs to be stored somewhere cool. We’re keeping ours in 5 gallons food-grade buckets either in a refrigerator or stored outside in the shade (it’s still dropping into the 30’s at night around these parts). You could also store sap in a 30-gallon drum (make sure it hasn’t held anything nasty in it previously) or even an old water tank. Be creative. Your storage needs to keep sap fresh (cool) while keeping critters and debris out (which is the second consideration).
Making an Evaporator
The purpose of boiling sap is to evaporate the large amounts of water and reduce the sap down to sugary syrup. Because sap is primarily water (approximately 40 parts water to 1 part sugar) you need boil off a lot of water. To give you feel for how much water we’re talking about, you’ll need 40 gallons of sap to get 1 gallon of syrup. Think of all the steam you’ll be generating… that’s why most homemade syrup connoisseurs boil outside rather than on the kitchen stove.
Boiling outside saves your home from being smothered in a cloud of steam, but it presents new challenges. Namely, you need some mechanism for holding and heating all of that same sap. Enter the backyard evaporator or “boiling pit”. You can buy a professional backyard evaporator, but these cost hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars. It’s difficult to justify that kind of expense when a low or no-cost homemade evaporator works just as well. Homemade evaporators come in as many shapes and sizes as you can imagine. Some of the more common systems are listed below. For details on how to make each, click on the appropriate image/video.
Cement Block Construction
Recycled Tank or Drum Construction
Backyard or Rocket Grill
Other things to keep in mind are permanency (do you want to set this up every year?) and protection from wind, rain and snow.
Boiling the Sap
Now that you’ve got a system in place, it’s time for the magic. According to Rink Mann:
“In boiling down sap, the idea is to get the job done fast by maximizing the amount of steam coming off the surface. You do that in two ways. First, you use an evaporator pan that’s relatively shallow (6″ – 8″) but with a lot of area, so as to have a large boiling surface area relative to the amount of sap in the pan. Second, you design the firebox to get as much flame as possible playing directly on the bottom of the pan. That means the firebox should be relativity shallow, too. And, since the flames tend to be swept backward toward the flue by the draft, rather than upwards against the pan, many backyarders build up the rear bottom of their fireboxes with sand so that the flames are forced to arch up against the pan, just like with professional rigs.”
Depending on how efficient your evaporator is, it can take in the neighborhood of 8 hours to create a gallon of syrup.
One more thing to note from Mr. Mann:
“During the boiling you’ll notice some scummy looking foam building up around the edges of your pans. This is a natural byproduct of the boiling and should not cause any alarm. Since it tends to reduce the boiling surface area, though, it should be skimmed off from time to time. I use a kitchen strainer and simply pitch the foam off into the snow.”
To keep the sap boiling at a constant temperature, it’s a good idea to preheat sap coming into the system. Below is a picture of Papa’s backyard evaporator. It’s made of cement blocks lined with fire bricks. A smoke stack draws ashes and smoke up and away from the sap (which can otherwise add a smokey taste to the final syrup). In Papa’s setup, the fire is so hot that even the smoke is burned (much like a rocket stove) and the exhaust is hardly noticeable. A metal sheet covers the pit and sports holes sized to allow flames to reach each pot directly. With a system of three boiling pots, Papa can continue to add syrup (preheated in a large electric coffee carafe) in succession so that the first pot is “fresh” sap and the final pot is where everything ends up at the end of the process. Once the sap takes on a golden color, it can be transferred off the evaporator to do the “final boil”.
The final boil should be done with more control than on the backyard evaporator. Your kitchen stove or an outdoor grill would be good places for this step. (Papa uses his grill.) Continue boiling the sap until, well… until it becomes syrup. You’ll know you’re there when:
- The sap “sticks” to a spoon as it runs off (syrup consistency)
- The temperature of the sap is 7* above the boiling point of water (you’ll need a candy thermometer for this)
Filtering Your Syrup
You’re not done yet! When the final boil is complete you’ll end up with a small amount of sediment. You can filter this out by:
- Using a food grade filter (such as a coffee filter)
- Allowing the syrup to sit overnight in the refrigerator and skimming off the sediment-free syrup into a new container
Papa uses a heavy-duty cloth filter (sorry I don’t have the specs on this) and filters it into a super big coffee carafe (like the kind they use at potlucks). If I get a picture I’ll upload it for you to see.
Storing Your Syrup
Yeah! You’ve made maple syrup!
Unless you plan on an all-night sugar binge, you’ll probably need to store the fruit of your labor. And unless you eat pancakes three times a day, you’ll probably need it to last a while. Good news is, syrup can be bottled (canned) and stored on your pantry shelf. The syrup should be between 180* and 190* (use a candy thermometer) and transferred into canning jars or glass bottles with tops. Be careful – too much additional heating will cause the breakdown of more sugar and add sediment back into your syrup. (With this in mind, if you plan to can your syrup, you probably shouldn’t use the refrigerator method for filtering.) Tip the container on its side as it seals so that the hot liquid sterilizes any small amount of air left inside. After you open a can/jar of syrup, store it in the fridge so it doesn’t go bad.
Syrup can also be frozen.
If neither of those are options for you, you can store it in sterilized containers (preferably glass) in the fridge for about 2 months.
There you have it! If you live in Southwest Michigan like us, it’s not too late to start gathering your own sap! (We’ve gotten nearly 20 gallons just today!) But if you’re not quite ready to make your own syrup in 2013… now you know how to do it next year.