I think I love maple syrup season more every year. I’m going to keep this post short, but I wanted to share with you a brilliant idea my sister-in-law had about cooking down her sap. She doesn’t have a sap stove, and cooking too much sap in the house for too long could cause a build up of moisture in your house and cause problems. It’ll also probably burn out your stove elements, or if you use gas like me, could be unhealthy for too long a period of time. So she got creative.
I thought I’d share a few resourceful ways to make your own maple syrup, even if you don’t have the supplies typically associated with syrup making.
You can get creative if you don’t have tapping supplies on hand. If you are handy at all, you could drill out the center of a stick, drill a hole into the tree the diameter of your stick, and tap the stick into the tree. No joke, it’s how it used to be done. You can use an empty milk jug or a bucket to collect sap and hang it right on your tap. (You’d have to cut a hole into the jug to make it work.) I saw a post on how to do this years ago, but I can’t currently find the information on it.
If you don’t want to be so primitive, you can always get supplies in the store or online at a relatively low cost. You’d just need a few taps (they are sold by the pack, so one would be more than you need), a drill bit the size of the tap, a hammer or rubber mallet (or something to pound the tap into the tree with) and a bucket. You can get tubing if you want, but it’s not necessary. You could also opt for bags and hangers instead like what is pictured below.
If you’ve never tapped before, find the side of the tree that gets the most sunlight, typically the south side, but it might be the east or west for you. Drill a hole about the depth of the tap to the hook, and tap it in! Then attach your bucket or bag or milk jug. When your container is full, start cooking, and put your container back. We’re probably over halfway through this year’s sugaring season, but you still have some time if you live far enough north.
Like I said before, you don’t need a sap stove to cook down your syrup, and you don’t need to cook it on a stovetop, either. My sister-in-law started to cook sap a couple of years ago without a sap stove. I think the first year, she may have been cooking on her stove top to start with, but then borrowed our propane stove and cooked outside. But that got expensive to keep running, so she looked for another option. Last year, her neighbor gave her a barely-used Nesco roaster that had a little damage to it. She cleaned it up, and has been using it for two seasons now to cook down her sap. She’s got an extension cord out her back door and is just letting it cook until it’s time to watch more closely.
If you end up using an electric oven, like a Nesco, to cook down your sap, you won’t be able to have a lot of taps, just on one or two trees. 5-10 gallons is going to take awhile to cook down! You can set the Nesco at whatever temperature you like, but just understand that the hotter you have it set, the faster it will cook. Sap turns into syrup by evaporating the water out of the sap. Sap is sugar water, and the goal is to reach the correct ratio of sugar to water to turn it into sap. If you don’t have any evaporation happening, you aren’t getting anything done!
I think it took me a day+ to cook down my 5 gallons. The first part of the first day, I kept the heat kind of low because we were going to be leaving the house, and I couldn’t have it boil over when I was gone. The next day, I turned the heat up all the way, and it still took most of the day, but it went a lot better. I also didn’t cook at night, because a) it’s a fire hazard, b) I didn’t want kids playing with the sap while I was sleeping, and c) I wanted to make sure it didn’t turn into maple sugar while I slept.
I decided to give her method a try for at least a little while because we were really busy two weeks ago, and I was having a hard time keeping up with the boiling. I wasn’t home enough to keep the fire stoked, but the sap was starting to flow heavily, and I needed to empty some buckets ASAP, or all that sap would go to waste. I had cooked down something like 25-30 gallons of sap until I had about 5 gallons left. Now, had I not been short on time, I would have cooked it quite a bit longer on our sap stove before taking it off.
Anyway, I pulled out my Nesco, but because of the weather (rain, then snow, then rain), I kept it cooking in the house. (It actually helped with the dry air quite a bit.) It did take quite awhile to cook down, but eventually, it got there. I did not finish cooking the syrup in the Nesco. When the level had reduced significantly, I took the sap out, put it into a pot, and finished cooking it on the stove.
There’s a sweet spot for cooking maple syrup. Not quite long enough, you’ll end up developing a little mold on the syrup if it doesn’t get used fast enough. Too long, and you’ll end up making maple sugar or hard candy, or just ruining your batch. But if you don’t have a candy thermometer, you can still cook your sap down to the right consistency. The sap will come to a full, rolling boil. It will start foaming quite aggressively, but it’s not time to come off. I’ll stir mine at this point, because you can develop hot pockets in the sap that will make it appear that you are done boiling before you actually are.
The sap has to be foaming and boiling, likely for several minutes, and then the temperature will suddenly spike and the boil will begin to change. The bubbles will begin to look sticky. Trust me, you can tell. They stretch when they pop. Through the boiling process, I will use a spoon to do a “sheeting” test, which is where you see if the syrup is just dripping off the spoon nicely, or if it starts to come off in a little sheet, maybe even being a little stringy. It’ll be a little sticky, too. When it comes off in nice sheets, it’s done.
Another thing to look for is the color. Your sap could look really dark, but that doesn’t mean it’s done cooking. Color has to do with the time of the sugar season that you are collecting, as well as how long you cook it for and how many batches of sap you add. You might have really dark looking sap, but when you start dripping it off of a spoon, it’ll look surprisingly clear. Now, syrup doesn’t have a ton of color when you drip it off a spoon either, but it’ll be a little tinted when it’s almost ready.
There is some good news if you’ve over-cooked your sap. If you haven’t scorched your syrup, you might still be able to salvage it. I accidentally cooked a batch of syrup too long last year, so I ended up making maple sugar instead. Thankfully, I had caught it at just the right time and nothing was lost. Maple sugar happens when you cook maple syrup to a specific heat point. If you’ve ever worked with a candy thermometer, it’ll say things like “hard ball,” “soft ball,” and so on, it’s like that… if you cook the syrup to the hard ball stage, you’ll end up with hard candy instead. So if you think you might have ruined your syrup, work fast and check online to see if it can be salvaged or not. If it still hasn’t burned, but it’s cooked beyond turning it into maple syrup, you can still reconstitute it. It’s not ideal, but if you can salvage your sap, why not?
If you want to learn more about making maple syrup, there are tons of resources out there online that can help you get started. Michelle Visser at Souly Rested wrote a book about maple syrup making, “Sweet Maple.” She covers all the basic info, and it also contains a bunch of delicious recipes you can use your maple syrup in. Her website also has a lot of information about syrup making on it if you can’t get her book fast enough!
Sorry I don’t have more pictures to share of using the Nesco or how to do a makeshift tapping operation!
Maybe this will give some of you something to do as we enter a national quarantine. Stay happy, safe, and healthy! Happy Sugaring!