The following is an excerpt from Maple Sugar by Tim Herd (Storey Publishing, 2010). Apple pie may be the most oft-mentioned exemplar of Americana, but few North American food traditions are as treasured as maple sugaring, few tastes as iconic as maple syrup. With the know-how delivered in this manual, you’ll learn how to tap the trees, secure the sap, separate the sugar and, most importantly, savor the treat. Author Tim Herd includes fascinating maple history — did you know maple sugar was once a political issue? — a maple tree field guide, and everything you need to know to produce maple syrup for profit or just plain fun. A perfect book for food, nature and DIY enthusiasts alike. This excerpt is from Chapter 6, “Do-It-Yourself,” and Chapter 7, “Maple Delights.”
Can This Tree Be Tapped?
Any native maple tree with a trunk diameter greater than 11 inches can be tapped. Wherever the tree suffers from such stresses as wounds, disease, insects, soil compaction, pollution or drought, it is better to go a little easier on it by placing fewer taps. Trees with large crowns extending down toward the ground are usually better sap producers. Follow these guidelines for how many taps you can put in a tree:
Trunk Diameter (measured at 4 1/2 feet above the ground)
11 to 17 inches = 1 tap
18 to 24 inches = 2 taps
24 inches and up = 3 taps
While tapholes located on the south side of the tree may flow earlier than those on the north, east or west (because of the sun’s warming), no evidence suggests that they yield more over the entire run than those on other sides of the tree. Likewise, locating a tap over a large root or below a large branch doesn’t have an appreciable effect.
For ease of collecting, most taps are made between 2 and 4 feet above the ground. You’ll want to avoid any previous tapholes by 5 to 6 inches vertically and 2 to 3 inches from side to side, locating new tapholes slightly above or below them to keep wounds to a minimum. Using a bit size of five-sixteenths (instead of the traditional seven-sixteenths) creates smaller tapholes (promoted as “health spouts”) that heal faster and allow for a more tappable area in future years.
Timing the Tapping
Keep a close weather watch. The largest and most consistent sap flows begin when the daily maximum air temperature reaches into the upper 40s or low 50s Fahrenheit while overnight lows still dip into the 20s. Such a daily range forces the sap to rise from the roots and trunk toward the twigs to fuel the coming springtime growth spurt, which can happen anytime between February and April. Each tap on a healthy tree may produce 10 gallons of sap or more during the month-long season, with most of it coming during a 10- to 14-day “run,” depending on the weather.
The rate of flow of sap at its peak can equal 200 drops per minute, or “two drops per heartbeat,” as old sugar-makers say. Ten gallons of sap will yield about 1 quart of syrup.
The sugaring season ends as the buds on the twigs begin to pop open, the tree stops producing sugar, and the clear sap becomes cloudy and stops flowing.
You Can’t Tap Too Much
A scar forms on the bark, but if the tree is otherwise healthy, tapping does not adversely affect the tree. If you follow the guidelines for the number of allowable taps per individual tree, no more than 10 percent of the tree’s sap will be collected. This can be likened to your donating a pint of blood — you don’t really miss it and your body simply produces more to replace what was taken. Some maples have been tapped upward of 150 years and are still healthy producers.
What You Need to Make Syrup
To get started maple sugaring, you could spend a lot of money to purchase an elaborate system, but it can actually be done quite simply and frugally. A few supplies are all you need:
Drill with a sharp 5/16-inch bit
Spiles (collecting spouts) for the tapholes
Collecting containers (Plastic buckets and gallon milk jugs work just fine. If you use a bucket, a lid over it will help keep out twigs, debris, insects, snow and rain.)
Large shallow metal pan or kettle
Heat source for boiling the sap (If you’re using a wood fire, you’ll need a sufficient stock of fuel and a stabilized grill on which to set your pan. A pair of cinder blocks with two or three metal yard stakes laid on top will work well for this purpose. An outdoor grill or camp stove could also be pressed into service.)
Candy thermometer (Optional. One that registers at least 230 degrees Fahrenheit can help you keep track of the sap’s progress and prevent burning of the syrup. Patience and a careful watch during finishing can do the same. Candy thermometers are readily available in housewares or kitchen departments.)
Kitchen strainer and paper towels (or a sheet of white felt) for filtering the finished syrup
Glass jars for the finished syrup
Finding the Equipment
Metal spiles with hooks, 500-foot coils of plastic tubing, plastic spiles as well as other sorts of professional equipment are available from any of the commercial suppliers. Wooden spiles can be fashioned out of staghorn sumac stems by hollowing out the soft pith in the center of a piece 4 to 8 inches long. Even simple twigs can be fitted into the holes to allow the sap to drip away from the trunk.
Let’s Get Tapping!
1. Identify the maples you intend to tap; gather your tools and equipment.
2. Locate the tap sites. (Use the trunk diameters listed previously under “Can This Tree Be Tapped?” to determine the correct number of tap sites for each tree.)
3. Drill each hole 2 to 3 inches deep, slanting slightly upward into the trunk. Clear away any sawdust.
4. Insert the spile and tap it to a snug fit. (Don’t pound it in!)
5. If using tubing, attach one end to the spile, set your bucket or jug on a stable spot on the ground, and let the other end of the tubing run down into it. If you are not using tubing, hang your bucket on the spile or tie it around the tree, or set it right below so the sap will drip directly into it.
6. Empty your container at least once every day, and more often if it’s warm out. Keep a close watch, because on a warm day the sap could over-fill your jug and be wasted. Sap can spoil if left uncollected. If you want to save it to boil all at once, refrigerate it.
7. Boil the collected sap. The sap will eventually darken in color and thicken. The boiling liquid will be foamy, and as the water boils off and the sugar content increases, the bubbles will reduce in size. As the syrup thickens, check its viscosity with a ladle or spoon. Runny, unfinished syrup will simply drip off the spoon. When it aprons or sheets off the spoon in a single layer, it’s done.
8. Filter the boiled syrup while it's still hot, then can it in glass jars.
Maple-Nutmeg Butternut Squash Recipe
1 butternut squash (1 1/2 pounds)
3 tbsp butter, softened
1 tbsp maple syrup
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1. Peel and dice squash, discarding seeds.
2. Cook in a small amount of salted boiling water until tender, then drain.
3. Place squash in a bowl and beat until smooth.
4. Add butter, maple syrup, salt and nutmeg, stirring well.
5. Sprinkle with additional nutmeg before serving.
Makes about 6 servings.
Maple Fudge Recipe
2 egg whites
3 cups maple syrup
2/3 cup light corn syrup
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup walnut pieces
1. Beat egg whites to stiff peaks and set aside.
2. Stir maple syrup and corn syrup together in a small saucepan over medium to high heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Boil until a drop forms a hard ball in cold water (250 to 260 degrees Fahrenheit on a candy thermometer).
3. Pour syrup mixture in a slow stream over stiffly beaten egg whites, beating constantly. Cool to 110 degrees.
4. For the last of the cooling, use a large spoon to beat the fudge until it begins to set. When stiff in texture, stir in baking powder and walnuts.
5. Pour into a greased 8-by-8 pan. Cut the firm, cooled fudge into squares.
Maple Granola Recipe
4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup each coarsely chopped walnuts and unsalted peanuts
1 cup hulled sunflower seeds
6 tbsp maple syrup
6 tbsp vegetable or canola oil
1 cup raisins and chopped dates, combined
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Mix oats, nuts and seeds in a large bowl.
3. Combine syrup and oil in a small bowl and microwave 30 seconds until warm. Pour over dry oat mixture.
4. Work the combined ingredients with your hands until material is uniformly moist, then spread on a lightly greased or nonstick cookie sheet.
5. Bake for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden in color.
6. Cool granola to room temperature and stir in dried fruit. Store in well-sealed jars or plastic bags.
Makes about 8 cups.
Reprinted with permission from Maple Sugar, published by Storey Publishing, 2010.