Making the evergreen tisane got me thinking that it’s time to start preparing for the annual sap run. If you are lucky enough to live near some maple trees, tapping for syrup is easy. I’d like to share my list of everything you need to tap for your own syrup; then all that’s left is to find a tree or two. It’s a great activity for kids, one that even my son is willing to leave the Xbox for. It’s a lot about anticipation and waiting, activities that are becoming rare given the immediacy of our technological world. Also, there’s a lot of history and folklore around maple syrup; once you are hooked, it’s worth researching and reading about.
Sugar Maples are the best because their sap has the highest sugar content (3%). They’re recognizable by their symmetrical crown, and they provide the distinctive leaf on the Canadian flag. We’re lucky enough to have two in our yard, but I wouldn’t be shy to ask friends about their trees; not many people can say no to pancakes smothered in fresh maple syrup. Other maples will work (Black Maple, Red Maple, Silver Maple, Ash Leaf Maple/Box Elder) but their sap has less sugar concentration so more boiling is required. How to Identify a Sugar Maple
If you order your supplies in advance, you’ll be ready for when the ideal conditions strike in your area. Sap usually runs for about a two-week period in late winter. Temperatures need to be below freezing at night, and above freezing during the day up to about +7C˚. It’s exciting to go out and check the buckets every day. After several years of tapping, my son and I are still thrilled at the first run, often called the ‘Robin’s Run’. It’s best to boil sap when it is fresh, but if you need to save it for a few days, keep it refrigerated.
My son was delighted to buy a hammer drill at Home Depot. They’re about $50 if you don’t need cordless; it’s all a teenaged boy could hope for—big, heavy and powerful. I like that it comes in its own fancy carrying case. You’ll need to invest in a 7/16″ titanium drill bit, a little pricey at almost $20, but it’s necessary to cut through the hard wood.
Even more exciting is shopping for buckets, lids, spiles (spouts) and bottles. I use an excellent Canadian supplier and am able to order everything online; they ship to the US and internationally. http://atkinsonmaple.com The bottles shapes are adorable, and make great gifts if you are generous enough to share your syrup. My son hoards our syrup for pancakes for him and Hunter, and I use it for salad dressings. (I’ll share the perfect dressing recipe in a future post.)
It is important to limit taps per tree. Measure the trunk diameter about four feet above the ground. For a diameter of 11-17 inches: use 1 tap; 18-24 inches: 2 taps; +24 inches: 3 taps. This way less than 10% of the tree’s sap is removed, and the health of the tree is protected. Drill the tap hole above a large root, or below a large limb, on the sunny side of the trunk, at a slight upward angle, 2 1/2 inches inward from the outside of the bark. I put masking tape on the drill bit to help my son gauge the depth. Then gently tap in the spile with a hammer, and hang your bucket. A lid is essential because it can be a rainy or snowy time of year.
The sap looks like water and has a very slight maple flavour. If the sap becomes yellow or cloudy, it’s time to stop tapping. Strain the sap through a reusable filter into a large canning pot, and you’re ready to boil!
The boiling down requires some time. I use the outdoor gas barbecue. A full pot takes 6 to 8 hours of boiling to get it to the final syrup stage. Boiling inside your house is not an option; the humidity released all day will peel your wallpaper! The sap will slowly darken and thicken. It’s a long day, but exciting nonetheless. I check its viscosity on a metal spoon, when it gently ‘sheets’ off the spoon (coats the spoon) instead of dripping, it’s done. (Or when it reaches a temperature of 7 degrees above boiling point on a candy thermometer.) I change from the canning pot to a smaller pasta pot and bring it inside to the kitchen stove when the syrup starts to darken. This will give you more control—you don’t want to overcook or syrup will crystallize and you’ll have maple sugar. (Not necessarily bad thing; it’s twice as sweet as regular cane sugar. If this happens, pour into a small cup or ramekin.)
While still hot, and at the “sheeting” consistency, filter the syrup through a funnel lined with cheesecloth or a piece of felt into sterilized jars. Fill to the top, leaving little air, and seal. Store in a cool place and always refrigerate after opening.
When I lived in Quebec, I visited many sugar shacks (cabanas à sucre) where the celebration of the annual tapping is serious fun. They sometimes serve ‘caribou’ (red wine, whisky and maple syrup) which isn’t my favorite, but the eggs, pancakes, sausages and baked beans slathered in syrup more than make up for it. And they know what they are doing—Quebec supplies almost 75% of the world’s maple syrup.
Hunter hoovers up his Sunday pancakes with maple syrup.
Here’s an easy ‘first-time’ checklist: (let’s assume 2 large trees)
- Drill + 6/17″ titanium drill bit
- 6 buckets, with lids (I use 2 gallon ones)
- 6 hooks
- 6 spiles (spouts)
- Felt filter (washable)
- Large canning pot
- Outdoor heat source
- Smaller pasta pot
- Candy thermometer (if desired)
- Small funnel
- Assorted 250 ml bottles/jars + lids
Books I Love:
Maple Sugar from Sap to Syrup, by Tim Hero
Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack, by Martin Picard