Make Your Own Maple Syrup
by Ida and Khoke Livingston of Davis City, IA
When you reach for a bottle or jug of maple syrup there’s nothing quite like the price tag attached to it to make you think twice. It is worth it, no doubt, in more than one way. But if you have maples in your neck of the woods there is no reason why you can’t make it yourself.
It is always best to start small with a process that is easy for you to handle and increase each year as you gain experience and confidence. There are also lots of great books out there with guidelines, facts and information of all kinds. Just don’t let yourself become overwhelmed with it. Sometimes more information isn’t more, it’s too much. After having cooked maple syrup for years, I got the notion to read up on it some. I opened the North American Maple Syrup Production Manual, a great book for those interested in steam evaporators and commercial production. But to a home producer like me, all that highly technical information about how to calculate Brix (sugar content of sap), and charts and equations to factor how your temperatures and syrup are affected by barometric pressure and elevation makes it more complicated than necessary. It took me so close to my high school math classes I could almost hear Mrs. Ludanyi’s voice. So I closed the book and decided to stick with what always worked without a thermometer anyway.
Maple syrup is generally considered a northern “crop.” But really, you can cook it anywhere trees get a good winter dormancy. When I was in my teens my family moved from Ohio to Tennessee. Our 40 acres was mostly wooded. In late winter when we hit those swinging temperatures we wondered if it was possible to cook maple syrup that far south. So we tried it and sure enough it worked.
In the south it can take up to 50 gallons of sap to cook down to one gallon of maple syrup. The far north boast ratios closer to 30-35 gallons of sap to a gallon of syrup. The sugar concentration in the sap also varies from one variety of maple to the next. It can also vary from one tree to the next within a single species.
Although you could technically tap trees and cook syrup in the late fall and early winter, your weather will be unreliable and the sap will have less sugar concentration. Most people will wait for the real syrup season in the late winter, this will vary by region. In Tennessee, my father would usually begin tapping in late January. Here in southern Iowa, Khoke usually begins tapping around February 13th. When the temperatures rise to around 40º F during the day and drop to the 20s at night, you are looking at ideal sap flow weather.
Tapping a tree is drilling a hole in the tree and inserting a metal or wooden hollow tube called a tap. It “taps” into the trees circulatory system which is predominately water but also contains trace amounts of minerals and sugar that we cook to concentrate into syrup.
The rule of thumb is to not tap trees under 12 inches in diameter. The old books say 10 inches but a lot of maples these days have more stress than in time past with air pollution, soil compaction, drought, pests, disease, etc. So it helps to be conservative when tapping. Trees over 18 inches in diameter can have two taps. The old rule was that you could put up to four taps on a tree larger than 2-1/2 feet in diameter. Really though, it is best not to exceed two taps on a tree.
Dad always said the lower you could tap the tree the better. He used steep hillsides and creek banks to his advantage for this. This was also in Tennessee where there was not usually any snow accumulation to speak of. Generally speaking, it is good to tap your trees about two feet off the ground. There are those, however, who have snow accumulation to contend with and cannot tap lower than four or more feet above the ground level. Just tap as low as you can and not closer than six inches to any pre-existing scar, including last year’s tap scar.
We use a 1/2 inch drill bit and drill the hole at an angle so the sap can flow out easily from a tip that tips down. Tap the tap in gently with a hammer and have your bucket ready. They usually begin to drip right away if the weather is right.
My father has always used metal taps. These can be purchased from any maple syrup production company such as Bascom’s. They can be reused year after year. Be sure to boil them (and your drill bit) to sterilize them before you use them. There are a host of microorganisms that like the maple sap too and will compete with you for it. They can cause your tap to dry up quicker, shortening your season.
My husband has taken to making our own taps from elderberry canes. [Please see following post: Make Your Own Elderberry Taps] They are renewable and reusable. When we reuse them we just boil them and let them dry before tapping them into the tree. We have a few split and break so a few new ones must be made at the beginning of the season each year.
How many trees should you tap? That is a really hard guess. If you are going to cook it off in your house, not more than one or two trees, and not more than maybe four taps. How much sap you are going to get can vary widely.
When I was growing up in Tennessee, which has less than ideal syruping conditions, we’d tap about 75 trees and get 12-18 gallons of syrup each year. Then one year my father, Paul Edwards, decided he was really too busy to do that much syrup and cut it back to only 17 trees near our house. Well it just so happened that we had an extra long season with excellent conditions and we were cooking around the clock. We ended up with 161/2 gallons, almost a gallon of syrup per tree we tapped. If we had actually tapped the usual 75 I don’t know what we would have done!
There are many different ways to catch the sap as it escapes the tree. Each container has its benefits and short falls. My father for awhile used gallon milk jugs because they are so easy to get. After they were washed he would cut a hole just under the sturdy plastic mouth of the jug. He’d cut it just large enough to fit over the tap. The nice part about these, besides being inexpensive, is they keep the rain and snow out along with twigs and other wind blown debris. The downsides are they hold less than a gallon, they are easily blown off in the wind, and they tend to accumulate ice overnight as the sap left in them freezes.
After a couple years Dad switched to the five gallon sized plastic cooking oil jugs. He would go around to restaurants and arrange to pick them up once a week. He’d bring them home and wash them. Not a fun job but doable. It takes a lot of hot water, soap and rinsing to remove all the cooking oil but it works. Then he would again, cut that hole under the heavy plastic mouth of the jug, just large enough to fit over his tap.
The benefit of the larger jug is to not have to make the rounds as frequently. It also helps prevent overflow by buying some time. He simply takes empty jugs out and replaces the fairly full ones on days of heavy sap flow. On the slower days he does his rounds dumping them into buckets and making carry trips as usual. You don’t want to just leave sap accumulating in there for days until it is full enough. If the weather is warm your sap will spoil. If it is very cold the sap will freeze solid.
Some people use buckets, either plastic or metal, to hang on the trees. Their strength and volume are the benefits and the large opening is its drawback as it can catch a lot of debris. Khoke’s mother side stepped this by buying food grade buckets with lids. She also bought metal taps that fit a length of plastic tubing so she slips one end of the tube over her tap and puts the other end in a hole in the lid of the bucket. It doesn’t come this way, she has to drill the hole.
Khoke and I use #10 cans collected from cafeterias and restaurants. They are just shy of a gallon and once held baked beans or tomato sauce. We take off the outside paper and paint the outside black. Then we spray paint a splash of white on one side. When dry, we punch a little hole at either side of the top and attach a length of barbless wire to make a handle. They resemble paint cans only they are food grade.
Painting the can black is a solar passive way to dislodge the ice that can freeze in the can overnight. The sun warms the black metal can in the morning just enough to loosen the ice from its sides. Then the sap and ice are easy to dump into our buckets as we make our rounds.
The white splash is important too. We tap a lot of trees. As we walk back and forth carrying a zillion trips with buckets, we don’t want to recheck trees unnecessarily or forget others. So as we make our rounds in the morning every can is facing black side out. When we dump the sap from the can into our bucket we replace the can with the white splash facing out. Then as we go along we can tell at a glance which trees have been gathered and which ones are yet to do.
As the sap is gathered we dump it into barrels, straining it through a cloth or screen to filter out the twigs and debris deposited by the wind. My dad happened upon a stainless steel milk tank at an auction that he picked up inexpensively, he uses this as a holding tank for his sap. My mother-in-law, Jenia Livingston, has a smaller operation and tries to keep it cooked off, but will store sap in buckets or a barrel if necessary.
Cooking the Syrup
The first year I can remember doing maple syrup as a kid we only tapped a few trees and we cooked it down in a stainless pot on our stove in the house. It fogged up our windows with the humidity of a rainforest. I don’t recommend trying to cook off a couple gallons worth of syrup in your house. The sauna effect really isn’t that great for the woodwork. If you want to cook down enough to make a pint or quart of syrup, that shouldn’t be a problem. Remember, to cook down to a gallon of syrup you are concentrating 35-50 gallons of sap by boiling it and evaporating the water into the air. Five gallons of sap should cook down to a pint of syrup.
You don’t have to have a big setup to cook off enough syrup for your family. Khoke’s parents live about an hour from us and his mom cooks down syrup every year. She had a pan custom welded for her about 2’ x 3’ x 8” deep with handles. You should be able to have one made at a welding shop relatively inexpensively. She sets hers up on a metal frame either in the driveway or garden site. One like this could even be set on cement blocks. Once she has it set up and level she puts her collected sap into the pan and builds a fire directly underneath. As the sap cooks down she keeps adding to it and stoking her fire.
As long as you are able to keep up with it, you do not have to finish it all in one day. But you might find your sap is spoiling faster than you can cook it off, in which case I have spent many nights up cooking it all night long. It is true that the quicker it cooks down, the lighter the syrup will be, but when cooking it for myself I am in no competition and syrup that is a little dark still tastes great. It is better to be safe and also to not chance ruining a batch. We usually will let our fire die out or rake out the coals when it gets dark and cover the pan and come back to it the next day.
As you cook it down, the more consistently you can keep it at a rolling boil the quicker it will cook down. Add sap regularly in small amounts. As the sap concentrates it will go from looking and tasting like water to developing that characteristic maple syrup color and taste. The more concentrated the sap becomes the more carefully you must watch your pan. About midway, your boiling sap will develop a foam that needs to be skimmed. You can use a screen sieve with a handle to skim this off. You may need to wear gloves, just be careful not to get a steam burn.
Flashing and Finishing
In the later stages the sugars will concentrate to the point where your syrup can “flash.” When you make jelly, at a certain temperature the fruit syrup will go from a rolling boil to a fast rising foam. This is flashing. Your maple syrup can do this too. When our sap has cooked down close to the flashing stage, which essentially means it is beginning to thicken, we move it to the finishing tray. We strain the sap / syrup again as it goes into the finishing tray. For the small scale operations like Jenia’s, finishing means putting it in a stock pot (stainless steel only) to bring inside and finish the final stage on the kitchen stove. This way it can be carefully watched and cooked slower. Flashing means you have too much heat for the sugar content. If it begins to flash turn down your heat, or take it off the burner if you have to get it under control quickly.
With an outdoor pan that has a direct heat source with coals and flame directly under the pan it is more tricky. Keep a low fire to finish cooking. If your pan of syrup begins to flash on you, rake the coals and wood out from underneath it immediately. I have raked out the coals and hosed them down with water in an emergency to stop the heat. Be very careful if you do this to not give yourself or anyone else a steam burn!
When you bring your stock pot in to finish, continue boiling it on your stove. Do not leave the room while it is boiling. To test to see if it is done Khoke will take about a tablespoon of syrup from the pot or pan and put it in a metal bowl or cup and set the container in either ice or very cold water to chill quickly. Once cooled he will swirl it in the cup. If it swirls like water it needs to continue boiling. If it swirls slower, a little thinner than honey, we are satisfied that it is done. He also does a drip test. He’ll pour some of the cooled syrup from a cup and when the drip will stretch and pull back to the cup it is syrup.
If your syrup is too thick simply add some water and return it to a boil. Syrup that is too thick will grow these amazing rock crystals in the bottom of your jar. This rock candy is fun in one jar and annoying in 20. When you leave these to grow a long time they can be difficult to remove from your jar. Simply use the syrup and when only the crystals remain in the jar, pour in some very warm water and leave it set overnight. They should be easier to remove the next day. I use this to sweeten tea when I have it.
Remember, this is about you and your family, not commercial standards. Just have fun and learn as you go. As you learn year by year, experience will teach you how to tweak the process for syrup that is exactly right. Thin syrup, thick syrup, dark syrup, it’s all delicious!
Once you are satisfied your syrup is cooked to suit you, you will note that at the bottom of your pot you will find a silty layer of mineral slurry called sugar sand. Let your pot cool and the sugar sand will settle. Then you can either ladle or siphon off the syrup. You can also stir it well and have a layer of mineral deposit at the bottom of each jar. I have done it both ways. The syrup I use on pancakes but I save the sugar sand and bake it into my breads or muffins.
Maple syrup, unlike honey, must be canned to preserve it. If left out too long it will develop a hearty layer of mold. Try to put your syrup into jars that hold an amount you would use in a week. Any Ball canning book can be a great resource to teach waterbath canning basics. They likely do not have instructions on canning something as specialized as maple syrup. So follow their basic waterbath instructions and process your jarred maple syrup five minutes in a boiling water bath. Never put cold jars straight into boiling water. Put your jars in cold or lukewarm water and bring it up to a boil from there. Your syrup will then keep as long as the lids maintain a seal – which can be years. Only they don’t last that long at my house and it has nothing to do with the lid; one word – pancakes.
A Cooperative Effort
You can cook maple syrup in small amounts suited to your time, energy and confidence. Whether in a stock pot on your stove, a small pan in your yard, or you can make your own sugarhouse with a larger tray like my Dad ended up doing. You can also see if there is interest in a cooperative effort with multiple families and people. This is what Khoke and I do. His cousins and their families along with some of our friends all do the syrup season together.
We have access to a good sized woods with predominately maple trees. We take our cooking trays right out in the woods. Our group collectively shares the responsibilities. It is nice because not everyone has the confidence to oversee cooking off the big trays, and those that do, have that responsibility. It also creates the opportunity for the less experienced to learn from those with more experience.
There are jobs for everyone. There is wood to haul and cut, trees to tap, fires to stoke, foam to skim, sap to strain, and lots and lots of sap to carry. The kids like to help too. They tag along and do what they can. It was cute to see a little three year old toting a gallon bucket, determined to carry sap as well. We save the trees nearest to the syrup camp for the kids to collect.
Sometimes we are all out there working and helping. Some days it is only a couple people carrying sap and babysitting the fire during the tedium of cooking down barrels and barrels of sap. It has to be kept up with or it can spoil. When it begins to spoil it starts to become cloudy. Bacteria are eating the sugar out of it and if let go too long and you cook it anyway will give the syrup an off flavor, like a bitter or sour aftertaste. While cooking off syrup, Khoke and his friend Ammon enjoy the perks of the job by dipping out a mug full of boiling sap to steep their tea in.
At the end of the season we count up all the gallons of finished syrup and divide it among us. Depending on the year, Khoke and I usually come home with 6-8 gallons of syrup.
One year a friend of ours took some half finished maple syrup, sap cooked until it was very sweet, and made vinegar out of it. He took 10 gallons of cooled sap that had cooked long enough to begin to take on the caramel color and put it in a food grade plastic barrel in his shed. He added apple cider vinegar mother to it and left it to sit. Well life happened and he got busy and forgot about it. Then about three years later it was rediscovered when rummaging in search of a barrel. It had turned itself into perfectly usable vinegar. Now it was a good bit stronger than the 5% vinegar that everyone is used to buying so it had to be diluted for use.
You can also cook sap from more than maples. There are those who have tapped walnut and birch trees. I have heard that hickory trees can be tapped but their sap is almost too thick to run well. Each variety of tree will have its own unique flavor and characteristics. One year I tapped a Boxelder tree. Boxelders are in the maple family and there was one by my house in Tennessee. I collected the sap and cooked it off separately on my stove to see what it was like. The syrup was very light colored and had the consistency of maple syrup only it tasted more like green tea syrup.
Look around you and see what you have where you are. You don’t have to have Sugar maples to make maple syrup. Here in southern Iowa we have predominately Silver maples. They grow well here and are established so that is what we use. Maybe you don’t have maple trees at all, but there are birch trees across the road or a walnut in the fence line. You would use the same principles to tap and cook those. Though I have heard walnut “syrup” has more of a jelly consistency. You can also ask other landowners nearby for permission to tap trees on their land.
Keep your operation small enough for you to enjoy. Have fun. Roast a few marshmallows over the coals. Taste the sap straight from the tree. If you have a good imagination it will taste sweet. To the rest of us it tastes like water. Cooking maple syrup is a lot of work but the reward of this job really is sweet.
It sounds incredibly tedious to boil 2-1/2 gallons of sap down to make only a cup of syrup, but really it is a miraculous work of wonder. I am in awe of the Native Americans who gifted us with this tradition while having no metal at all, much less a thermometer. It frees me to not limit myself to commercialized standards and inspires me to look around at what I have on hand to accomplish any task or goal before me.
Each new thing tried and every small success enriches one’s life. We all get so busy with life we let the opportunities to really live pass us by. Catch this moment before it passes.