Sometime last summer, we had this crazy idea that, even though we live decidedly South of the prime maple syrup zone, maybe we could tap a few of the maple trees we have on our nine acres and try our hand at making our own maple syrup. We had no idea what we were doing, but the appeal of possibly creating our own, barely-processed, all-natural sweetener was just too tempting to ignore.
A few years back, we made the switch to using more all-natural sweeteners—we use mostly local maple syrup and local raw honey—but the cost was always incredibly discouraging—local maple syrup costs about $20 per quart around here. So we were really excited about the idea of maybe recouping some of that cash by producing our own syrup.
If you don’t know how syrup is produced (I didn’t before this!), you drive a spile into the tree, hang a bucket on it and the sap drips into the bucket. We ended up tapping six maple trees back in mid-February (after ordering aluminum spiles, buckets and lids from eBay).
Just as long as you don’t use too many spiles in the same tree, it doesn’t hurt the tree at all. The sap runs really well when the night is cold and the day is sunny and cool. The sap doesn’t run so much if it’s overcast, really cold, or really warm. Since we tapped our trees on a nice, sunny day, the sap started running immediately. I definitely let out a little squeal of excitement when that first drop hit the bottom of the bucket.
Some days, we’d have to empty the buckets two or three times because of the weather. Other times, we could go three days without emptying them.
We actually got a little bit of a late start because we were out of the country at the very beginning of sugaring season, but even with that late start, we still managed to produce a lot more syrup that either of us expected! Honestly, in the beginning, I had planned on getting a lot more than six buckets going, but cost prohibited us from buying more. I’m so thankful we didn’t tap more! We wouldn’t have been able to keep up with it. Six taps are more than enough to cover us for a full year (and even have some leftovers to give away to family and friends).
Once you’ve collected some sap, the only other part of the process is to boil off the water. Depending on which type of maple tree you are tapping, maple sap is between 1-4% sugar content, and turn it into syrup, enough water needs to be boiled off to reach 66.9% sugar content. Which means, it takes a crapload of sap to make a little bit of maple syrup—about 43 gallons of sap for each gallon of syrup.
We just boiled off our syrup on our stove an a big stock pot and a shallow turkey roaster acting as our evaporating pan (well, until I burnt that to a crisp, more on that below). It took hours and hours of evaporating to turn the sap into syrup, but it was okay because it was mostly hands-off time.
Tada! Syrup! Wondering about the different colors? Earlier in the season, the syrup is lighter in color and flavor, by the end of the season it’s very maple-y and almost black. The more you know!
Of course, considering it was our first time doing this, there were some hiccups along the way. We were a bare-bones operation this year, and we already have plans in the works for next year to make it easier to collect sap. We (quite literally) did all the heavy lifting this year, but we’re planning on rigging up our tractor and a wagon next year to help us collect. No more hulking 60 pounds of sap! Yay!
I also burned no less that five different batches of syrup because I forgot they were on the stove. Most syrup-makers have a sugar shack or create an outdoor evaporator and just watch their syrup all day, we were doing such a small amount, we just kept it going on our stove in the kitchen—which meant I could wander off and get lost in other things and not realize syrup was burning until the smoke detectors were going off. We do have plans to do it outdoors next year (firewood for outdoor fire=free, propane for our stove=not free). I will miss the amazing amount of humidity boiling off sap added to the dry winter air. I will not miss the smell of burnt maple syrup.
One of the bigger hiccups we dealt with was figuring out when the syrup was done. More expert maple syrup producers use something called a hydrometer, which measures the density of sugar in the mixture. When it’s at 66.9% sugar, it’s maple syrup. If it’s higher sugar content than that, it’ll crystallize and become hard. If it’s lower than that, it’ll spoil when you store it on the shelf (although, this isn’t a problem if you plan on keeping your syrup in the fridge, like we are).
But we didn’t have a hydrometer, and we certainly weren’t going to buy one for this little experiment so we went the homespun route—a thermometer.
Maple syrup boils at 7° above the boiling point of water. So once the syrup hits that number, we knew it was done. Honestly, the thermometer itself was a big hassle. Never before have I needed a really accurate kitchen thermometer. I ended up trying three different thermometers I had kicking around my kitchen—two meat thermometers and a candy thermometer. And they all sucked.
The candy thermometer was useless from the second I put it in the pot because it was completely fogged over and was impossible to read—let alone down to the degree.
The other two digital thermometers were so jumpy that it made it impossible to get a consistent reading. One would jump around all over—140°, 430°, 85°, 219° and eventually just land on “Hi” or “Lo”. It was absolutely infuriating, especially considering the point when the batch goes from not syrup to syrup to not syrup again happens incredibly quickly.
So during one of my fits of thermometer rage, I took to Twitter to complain and ended up connecting with the amazing folks at ThermoWorks and they offered to send me one of their ThermaPens to make my syrup-making life a little easier. I pretty much collapsed to my knees out of gratitude (and Craig was very happy with the bonus Jelly Bellys they sent along with it).
It changed my life. Seriously. It was accurate. It was easy. It was fast. So fast, in fact, that with my other thermometers, I kept burning my hand on steam because I had to hold it for so long to get a solid reading, but the ThermaPen reads in three seconds—no more steam burns. Yay! Each and every batch of syrup after I got my ThermaPen turned out perfectly. Not only could I get down to the degree, but down to the tenth of the degree! I certainly don’t need a hydrometer now. And I will recommend ThermaPens to everyone in the whole wide world.
My favorite thing about the ThermaPen is how simple it is. It’s just a thermometer. That’s it. You open it, it comes on, you close it, it goes off. My other thermometers had timers and alarms and clocks and bells and whistles that did nothing but get in the way. One of them didn’t even have an “off” button, so to turn it off, I had to take the battery out. Ridiculous, right?
My ThermaPen saved sugaring season. I don’t normally swoon over a lot of kitchen products, but this one is completely swoon-worthy. The price may seem crazy for something like a thermometer, but considering I probably spent more than that on the three other crappy thermometers I own combined, it’s well worth it in my opinion. I am so incredibly grateful to ThermoWorks for offering to send me one to review. I might have to build a little pedestal for this guy in my kitchen. He deserves to be worshipped by all the other utensils in my kitchen.
Anywho, once I got the “how do I know when it’s finished?” problem solved, the process went really smoothly. Every day for the past month, I’ve woken up, put the tea kettle on to boil and the maple sap on to evaporate and let it do its thing all day long. We evaporated our sap as we went, mostly because we didn’t have any place to store that much sap, but some folks will store it all in big food-grade barrels and boil it down all at once.
We ended up with about 2 1/2 gallons of syrup (not including the batches we messed up or gave away as gifts). A lot of home syrup producers will preserve their syrup in canning jars and store them on the shelf, but since we didn’t have a hydrometer (and would be crushed if our “babies” spoiled) we decided to just stash it all in beer growlers in our basement fridge. It should last pretty much indefinitely. Or at least until we eat it all.
Overall, I’d consider it a very successful first sugaring season. We learned a ton (a ton!) and still managed to get enough sweetener to last us quite a while. I’ve done a lot of crunchy, self-sustainability stuff in my life, but I think producing our own maple syrup is on the top of the list of my favorites. I’m happy that sugaring season is over for now—mostly because I’m so sick of carrying sap buckets—but I know come February next year, I’ll be chomping at the bit to get started again.
Disclaimer: ThermoWorks sent my one of their ThermaPens for free in exchange for this review. All views and opinions expressed are my own.