Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Maple tree and collection bucket, Joanna Reuter.
Tapping maple trees for home production is practical and productive, even outside the traditional northern maple zone. Here in central Missouri, we’ve produced excellent syrup and other maple products in three of the last four years (we didn’t tap trees in 2015).
We only tap three trees per year, which each yield up to three gallons of sap per day when conditions are right. At this scale, we don’t have a dedicated sugar house or other infrastructure, so have developed methods that allow us to make syrup as needed without significant additional investment. In addition, we’ve settled on a method of freezing partly-concentrated sap as a low-effort way to preserve maple flavor, using it as a refreshing drink base throughout the year.
We use a simple home sugaring kit purchased from Tap My Trees in 2013, consisting of three buckets, taps, and hangers. We set these up in late winter or early spring, when the weather appears to be moving toward the proper conditions of days above freezing and nights below.
Here in the lower Midwest, we don’t always get these conditions reliably for a long stretch; it’s easy for our weather to yo-yo from the 20s into the 60s, disrupting the trees’ sap run and making reliable maple collection harder. We might have a good sap run for a few days, then a week or more of nothing, then another run. Thus we’ve needed to develop ways to handle and process whatever sap we do get, in whatever time frame it comes, without expensive permanent infrastructure.
Generally, we check the three buckets every evening, and transfer their contents into 3-5 gallon food storage containers, filtering the sap through cheesecloth to eliminate bark and insects. These containers then go to a spare fridge in our garage; we keep several of these for storing abundant produce during the growing season and maple storage just adds to their utility. This means that we can collect sap for up to a week, until we’re able to process it.
Sap stored for more than about a week is likely to turn cloudy, a sign of spoilage and an indicator that it should be (sadly!) discarded.
Cooking down sap over an open fire, Joanna Reuter
The core goal of sap collection is maple syrup, which is produced by reducing the sap by about 40:1. This is usually done outdoors, as many sources advise against indoor sap cooking due to a potential buildup of sticky residue on your kitchen surfaces.
We use a large roasting pan set on a basic metal grate, placed over a fire of various wood scraps. Cedar is excellent for this here in Missouri, as it’s abundant and burns fast with lots of heat. We always have piles of it left over from various homestead forestry work, including milling timber.
Cooking down sap requires regular, but not constant, attention. On the appointed day, we start the sap boiling and keep topping off the pan as it reduces. In between stocking the fire and checking the sap, we work on any number of projects in the area, including maintaining our herb garden and orchard. On our homestead, it’s not hard to find useful busy work that keeps us within a monitoring radius of the sap pan.
When the liquid level has dropped enough, it’s in danger of scorching in the big pan, so we transfer it to a smaller pot, either an aluminum one for continued reduction over the fire, or a regular one for finishing in the kitchen.
We can cook down 15-20 gallons of sap per day using this method.
Filtering sap into a pan for final concentration, Joanna Reuter
When the syrup is ready to come inside, we filter it again with cheesecloth to remove any ash or the debris (we find that our outdoor syrup has a pleasant smoky flavor that distinguishes it from most commercial syrups). It’s difficult to truly finish syrup over an open fire without scorching it, so we do the last reduction on the stovetop, using a kitchen thermometer and our own judgment.
If the outdoor cooking has taken all day, it’s easy to chill the proto-syrup and finish reducing it another day. After all, we just opened up a lot of fridge space! Maple concentrate officially becomes syrup when it boils at 219ºF. When above ~200ºF, granular particles of “sugar sand” will precipitate out of the syrup, contributing to cloudiness.
We had heard from one source that it’s better not to eat sugar sand, though other sources say it’s harmless. Commercial producers filter this out to produce a clear product, though filtration can be challenging at the home scale. Maple-specific filters are available for sale, though we’ve used coffee filters in the same funnel that we use to filter goat milk. Syrup must be hot to go through, and even then the filter will clog quickly and need to be changed frequently. Because of the slow filtering process, the syrup pan will continue to evaporate, so it may be necessary to add a little sap now and then to keep the proper consistency.
An alternative to filtering that we’ve read about is to leave the syrup undisturbed in the refrigerator for a week or two while the sediment settles out, then decant the syrup off and leave the sediment behind. We distribute finished syrup into glass pint jars and freeze them, so that we don’t have to worry about shelf-stability or sealing jars. They take up very little space for their concentrated value.
Syrup isn’t the only viable product you can make from maple sap. When it’s raw, sap has the texture and flavor of faintly sweet water. Yet if you cook it down about halfway to syrup, it retains its watery texture but concentrates into a rich maple flavor. It’s effectively a very tasty homemade “fruit” juice, but one which requires even less infrastructure and hassle than true syrup.
Maple concentrate can be cooked down outdoors, or indoors on a kitchen stove or wood stove; we’ve never noticed problems from the steam (we’ve read that boiling sap in the house can take off wall paper; much to our disappointment, we have not encountered this “problem”). We simply fill one or more large pots with raw sap and let them simmer away on the stove, refilling as needed, and stopping them when sufficient flavor has developed. This can be a very practical way to manage home-scale maple production; three gallons of sap will produce less than a pint of syrup, but could also become more than a gallon of tasty home-made drink. This can be filtered for a clearer product; it passes through filters much faster than concentrated syrup.
We make concentrate whenever we can’t commit to full syrup processing, whether due to low sap yield, busy lives, or too much snow on our fire pit. We pack the maple drink in quarts, and then use these to fill the empty spaces in our chest freezers left by a winter’s worth of eating.
Freezers run most efficiently when they’re full, so in years past we replaced the empty space with pure water; now some of that space is taken up instead with tasty beverage. Throughout the spring, summer, and fall, we can thaw out a quart of maple concentrate for a wonderfully refreshing drink, whether warmed up on a cool day or iced on a hot one, whether alone or as the base for interesting mixed drinks.
Eric Reuter and his wife, Joanna, founded their homestead farm in 2006, within a narrow Ozark-style valley with diverse landscapes and ecosystems. Chert Hollow Farm seeks to integrate food and farming into the ecosystem, at various times managing vegetable and grain crops, perennial fruits, dairy/meat goats, poultry, timber resources, and natural habitats. Read all of Eric's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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