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Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.


Setting Up a Sugar Shack and Collecting Maple Sap

Tapping time is finally here! I’ve currently got 8 taps in my trees and the temperature range here in Minnesota is absolutely perfect for the sap run. (If you recall from my last blog, Tapping Maple Trees: A Beginner's Guide to Making Your Own Maple Syrup, that’s temperatures that create a daily freeze/thaw cycle of cold nights and warm days). So, now what do we do with all that sap? With my 8 taps, I can expect to collect almost 100 gallons of sap this season – which means it’s time to have a plan for collecting, storing, and boiling. Before bringing home that first bucket of sap, though, we need to make sure you have everything in place so you can start cooking. And the best part? Now you get to call yourself a sugar maker and create your very own sugar shack!

This article will show you how to collect, filter, and store your sap prior to boiling plus how to get your cooking area ready to go for the big day. Keep in mind, though, that once things start running, these sugar-making steps all intertwine and after the first few days, you’ll be collecting and boiling all at the same time.

Essential Sugar-Making Tools

Maple sap starts out as 98-percent water and 2-percent sugar. Your job as a sugar maker is to boil away this water and concentrate that delicious sugar. Because the process relies on evaporation, the more surface area you can create for boiling, the faster the process will be. Additionally, a slow consistent heat source that creates a gentle rolling boil will prevent foam-ups and scorching. For these reasons, many sugar makers prefer a shallow pan or large kettle over a wood fire for the first stages of boiling. This is commonly called an evaporator and the pans are called evaporator pans. Most people also choose to boil their sap outside or in a dedicated shed because tiny bits of sugar are carried off with the steam and everything around your cooking area will become sticky!

 homemade maple syrup evaporator

The evaporator does not need to be elaborate or expensive – most home sugar makers create their own DIY system and there are hundreds of design examples online. And take it from me, even I haven’t made the leap to my own evaporator stove and we still use the “turkey cooker” burner and an outside camp stove. This does take more fuel compared to wood but the end result is still the same and as long as it works to boil the sap down, it’s fine.

Pots and Pans

Whatever cooking method you choose, you will need sturdy and heat-resistant pots and pans. Remember surface area counts in the first stage of boiling so opt for the widest pan you can find but make sure it has sides high enough to leave at least 3 inches of headroom once you start boiling the sap. Look at restaurant supply stores or online or go for the pre-made hobbyist sized pans with attached spout – this makes pouring out your sap so much easier. For the second boil or finishing stage, a regular large soup kettle will work but make sure it has a heavy bottom to prevent scorching.

Filters

Filtering is a critical part of the sugar-making process and it cannot be skipped. Filtering at first removes unwanted debris such as bits of dirt or insects. The second and third filterings remove “sugar sand” or niter which develops as the sap is concentrated and, if left in the bottle, will affect the finished syrup’s quality and clarity. So before you bottle, you’ll filter the sap three times:

Filter No. 1: Collected sap is poured once through cheesecloth or a clean (no laundry detergent) cotton tee-shirt to remove debris.

Filter No. 2: After the first stage of boiling, concentrated sap is poured from the evaporator pan through a thin filter into the finishing pot. The filter used here must be designed for syrup-making and is typically made out of Orlon or another synthetic material designed to handle hot syrup. These can be purchased online and are reusable each year.

two stage maple syrup filter 

Filter No. 3: After the final stage of boiling, syrup is poured through a two-stage filter made of the thinner filter used in Step No. 2 suspended inside the thicker felt or wool filter.

Thermometer

Even more important than filtering is knowing when to stop cooking your syrup – I’ll cover the cooking details in my next article but for now make sure you have a thermometer with a readable degree scale in the 200 degrees Fahrenheit to 230 degrees Fahrenheit range. Some candy thermometers will work as will newer electronic thermometers with digital readouts. Choose a thermometer with an attachment handle or clip so you do not have to hold it above the boiling syrup.

Workspace, Lighting, and Kitchen Supplies

Like any cooking project, boiling syrup requires kitchen utensils such as long handled ladles, heavy-duty potholders, clean dish clothes, and soapy water. Because the boiling process can take so long, try to set up your cook area under a roof with ample lighting – this protects you and your sap from rain or snow and gives you light for those days when boiling extends past dark. You’ll also need a work surface for filling jars and a flat table where your filled jars can sit overnight undisturbed.

Finally, plain glass canning jars with lids and rings work just fine to hold your finished product. Make sure the rims are not chipped and the jars have been sterilized prior to filling. Avoid using plastic containers as they can affect the flavor of the syrup. If you’re in the mood for something more decorative, check online for fun leaf-shaped bottles or other unique designs.  

Collecting Sap

The amount of sap you collect each day will again be affected by the temperature. On a really warm day, your buckets may fill to the top but on colder days, you may get just a few ounces. This is normal and don’t be worried if it seems like nothing is happening. Your spiles can stay in place all season long to catch sap whenever it decides to run. It’s best to visit your taps every day and empty whatever sap’s accumulated. Sap left sitting too long in warm temperatures will grow bacteria. This is not harmful as it will be killed during boiling but this bacteria will eat away at your sugars which can lengthen boiling times.

emptying maple sap into bucket 

The best way to collect sap is to use large food-grade plastic buckets – use only buckets that are odor-free and have not been recently cleaned with dish soap. Take the bucket to each tree and empty the container. This saves time and keeps sap from running onto the ground while the containers are off the spile. If you can, pull a sled with you or an ATV or snowmobile. For larger tubing systems, you can also try connecting all your lines with couplers and directing the sap into one large container.

Once you’ve collected your sap, bring it back to your work area and filter it through cheesecloth (as described above.) Filter it as many times as needed to remove everything – sap should be clear when you’re done. Don’t be discouraged if you have to filter out insects or bark – maple sap is just like any other homegrown product! It needs to be “cleaned” before eating and the boiling process will do that job.

After filtering and if you’re not cooking right away, the sap must be kept cold to avoid bacteria growth. Leave your sap in your buckets or transfer into a larger container and store this sap outside in the shade and pack snow around it to keep cold (or store in the refrigerator). Make sure to cover the buckets to keep the sap clean. You can store sap in this manner for up to 5 days.

What’s Next?

My next blog will walk you through the entire cooking process and show you step-by-step how to turn your sap into delicious pure maple syrup. If you don’t have time to wait for my next blog, I’ve created a handy Quick Guide to Maple Tapping ebook with everything you need to know to make maple syrup today.

For more information on sugar making, Julie can be reached by email. Her books, Guide to Maple Tapping and Kid’s Guide to Maple Tapping, are available on Amazon in both ebook and printed versions.

The information and instructions contained within this blog series were gleaned through the personal sugarmaking experience of the author, through interviews and case studies with professional sugarmakers, and through these additional resources:

1. Blumenstock, Marvin (author); Hopkins, Kathy (editor); How to Tap Maple Trees and Make Maple Syrup 2007
2. Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension Program, Frequently Asked Questions for the Maple Producer, Forest Owner, and Consumer, authored by Peter J. Smallidge, Marianne E. Krasny, Lewis J. Staats, Steve Childs, and Mike Farrell, 2013
3. Heiligmann, Randall B., Ohio State School of Natural Resources, Hobby Maple Syrup Production
4. Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, Explaining Sap Flow, 2014
5. Michigan Maple Syrup Association, 2003, Facts and Figures
6. Nebraska Forest Service, Sugar Maple
7. Somerset County Maple Producers Association, New Options for the Maple Spout or Spile, 2012
8. Styles, Serena, Nutrition of Pure Maple Syrup vs Honey, 2014
9. United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, Maple Syrup Production, 2014
10. Vogt, Carl, University of Minnesota Extension, Minnesota maple series: Identifying maples trees for syrup production, 2013


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