Real Food
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How to Make Maple Syrup

Last week, I wrote about the joys of backyard maple syrup making - the knowing-we-can-do-it satisfaction I get from making my own syrup. In this article, I share some of the how-to details so you can do it, too. It’s not hard, but there are a few things you need to know to be successful. 

homemade maple syrup

There's nothing quite like the I-made-it-myself taste of homemade maple syrup.

Timing is Everything

The window for collecting maple sap is as critical as it is brief - a month or less. Watch for consistently low temperatures below freezing and equally consistent highs above freezing. Sap-collecting time is over once the trees begin to bud. Syrup will get an “off” taste then.

Select and Tap Your Trees

The best time to identify maple trees on you property is when they’re in leaf. Mark them with surveyor’s tape or a squirt of spray paint for easy identification later. Select healthy trees at least twelve inches in diameter (not circumference). Use only one tap for a tree that size. The larger the tree, the more taps you can use. Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources says two spiles for a 15-19” diameter tree; three for 21-24”, four for a 25” or larger tree.

To tap a tree, first choose a spile—a purchased metal one or one you make yourself. Drill a hole in the tree (about 4" above ground) 1½ to-2” deep (depending on bark thickness) angling your drill slightly upward so the sap can flow downwards. Hole diameter should match spile diameter. With a hammer, tap the spile into the tree. It needs to fit snugly and stay put, but tap gently to avoid damaging the tree.

Purchased spiles may come with a hook for hanging a collection bucket. Food-grade buckets can be purchased at home improvement stores. We chose a system that includes hookless spiles, plastic collection bags, and galvanized bag holders. tapping maple trees

Once the season is over, immediately remove spiles. Be gentle too avoid damage and to allow the tree to heal. Clean and sterilize equipment, then store for use next year.

Collecting and Storing Sap

Collect sap daily. In a perfect world, you’ll evaporate sap the day it’s collected, but things don’t always go as planned. If you don’t have enough sap (you should start with at least ten gallons) or if you must delay evaporation for some other reason, store the sap (covered) in a cool, shady place. Aim for 38 degrees or lower. Otherwise, the sap may spoil.

Here’s a trick to speed up the evaporation process. If it’s cold enough, some of the liquid may freeze overnight. Discard the frozen part. What’s left will be more concentrated and take less time to boil down.

The Evaporation Process

Evaporation is the technical part of the operation, but it's not rocket science. You need an outdoor heat source (fireplace, wood stove, turkey fryer), a large cooking container (aluminum will affect taste), a candy thermometer, and a skimmer. The greater the surface area, the faster the evaporation. A lasagna pan has proportionally more surface space, but a deep pot lets you work with more liquid at a time.

Fill the cooking container no more than 2/3 full of sap and turn the heat up high. If using firewood, aim for a roaring fire. Keep heat consistently high. Once the liquid boils and begins to reduce, add more sap a little at a time—you don’t want to lose the boil. I’ve developed a two-step operation, first heating the new liquid in an old electric teapot. As soon as it begins to boil, I add it to the larger pot and begin the process again.

There’s no need to stir. In fact, you shouldn’t, but remove any debris with a skimmer.

A candy thermometer will help you determine when to remove the sap from its heat source. Rule of thumb: when the thermometer reads seven degrees above the boiling point, which varies by elevation. If you don’t know yours, contact your local extension service.

Boiling ten gallons of sap down to one quart of syrup takes a long time—a really long time. But as it nears the finish, the process speeds up amazingly fast. Look away for a few seconds and it may be too late. Once the liquid has mostly cooked down and you’re no longer adding new sap, it’s best to transfer it to a smaller pot, which gives you more control. If you have a good ventilation system, you may want to finish your batch on the kitchen stove. Otherwise, an outdoor camp stove is an excellent alternative.

Yields Will Be Low

If the trees you tap are sugar maples, expect about a quart of syrup for each ten gallons of sap. Other maple varieties also make excellent syrup but their sugar concentration is lower. It takes more sap to get that quart of syrup, up to one-third more for some varieties.

Finishing Up

Filter the syrup as soon as it’s removed from heat. It's much more difficult after the syrup cools. For this task you can use a coffee filter or a purchased orlon or wool bag made for this purpose. Filtering can take an excruciatingly long time. Still, you should do it to ensure a pure product. 

If you have more syrup than you can store in the refrigerator and use within a few weeks, freeze or can it. Freezing keeps it fresher and is easiest, assuming you have adequate space. Just start with hot, sterilized mason jars. Use wide-mouth jars and leave an inch or two of air space for expansion. Add lids. I recommend Ball plastic lids, which can be found most anywhere canning supplies are sold. Store upright—the syrup will not freeze solid.

To can syrup, you also need clean, hot canning jars. Use an approved water bath canning process, like this one from the National Center for Home Food Preservation: Specific information on home canning maple syrup is woefully scarce, but I use the same process as for making jams: leave ¼ inch head space and process for ten minutes (at sea level). Add a minute of sterilizing time for each 1,000 feet of elevation. It’s important that both jars and syrup are hot—at least 180 degrees. If the syrup cooled during the filtering process (chances are it has), reheat it.

According to some sources, including the University of Maine’s extension service, it isn't necessary to process if you’re using hot, sterilized jars and your syrup is at least 185 degrees when you fill the jars.

Sugar Sand

After the syrup is filtered and jarred, you'll likely notice a light-colored filmy deposit in the bottom of the jar. Not to worry. Known as sugar sand, it’s a deposit of naturally occurring minerals, mostly calcium malate, and it's perfectly safe. Some people like it; some don’t. I’ve heard some folks use it as a sweet spread on toast in lieu of jam. But if it makes you wrinkle your nose, just stop spooning out the syrup when it reaches sugar sand level.

A Few Interesting Facts

There are those who drink sap straight from the trees or use it for cooking water. It’s viewed as a tonic and is a common practice in Korea. You may have even seen sap water sold in stores.

Maple syrup is mostly sugar, so it should be used in moderation. However, it does contain antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, has a lower glycemic level than refined sugar, is 100% natural - nothing is added and the only thing removed is some of its water content. So, while you shouldn’t add maple syrup to your diet for its nutritive value, it may be a better choice than most other sweeteners.

Why Bother?

You may not want all the bother of making your own maple syrup. After all, it’s pretty time-consuming and, depending on your heat source, not worth it financially. But there are other values to consider. For one, after several cooped-up winter months, some bracing sap-collecting and syrup-making activity gets the blood running through those veins again.

It’s a great learning activity for children, mixing science, math, ecology, and more. And it will most certainly make you appreciate every drop of pure maple syrup you ever put in your mouth, homemade or not. It’s an excellent family activity that's bound to make lasting memories—children of almost any age can participate in at least some part of the process. And won’t they have fun telling their own children about “that time way back when.”

While you can put a fair amount of expense into making maple syrup, you can also do it on a shoestring, using nothing more than hand-made spiles, a few milk jugs, and an open fire.

Isn’t it at least worth a try?

Carole Coates is a gardener and food preservationist, family archivist, essayist, poet, photographer, modern homesteader. You can follow her Mother Earth News blog posts by following this link. You can also find Carole at Living On the Diagonal where she shares her take on life, including modern homesteading, food preparation and preservation, and travel as well random thoughts and reflections, personal essays, poetry, and photography.

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Butchering Your Own Meat

Freshly slaughtered hog

If you have not grown up learning how to slaughter and butcher your own meat the prospect of it might be overwhelming. When we made the choice as a family to be as in command of our own food chain as we possibly could, meat production to its full extent seemed a far reaching goal. My husband and I both grew up in homes that practiced home butchering; however, you know how much children pay attention. The largest hurdle to processing your own meat is the mental hurdle. To process meat on a small scale you do not need expensive butchers equipment. You need a healthy animal, some knowledge of slaughtering and butchering practices, the means to kill the animal and hang it, sharp knives, a clean place to work, and the humility to know that you will screw it up and get better at it next time.  

When we started farming and eating our own animals we struggled with finding meat processing companies that we felt sure were processing our meat in a way that we wanted. Sometimes the meat would come back with a funny taste, or it would be tough when the animal we sent was young. So we finally braved the process ourselves. Raising an animal from birth to slaughter will ensure you have command of your food quality. It is difficult to get the assurance of food quality from any other source. We are a very small production farm so our animals are cared for on an individual basis; they each have a name and are well fed. There is no greater respect for the food on your plate to be had when you have cared for that food well before it goes into your freezer. Removal from the life death cycle has corrupted our food chain in a physical and spiritual manner. The effects of this disruption are being felt by our generation and our children’s.

Because most of us have spent our adult lives acquiring meat in the grocery store, the basic knowledge of how to process our food puts us in an infant like state; dependent on other adults for our food. The knowledge is still out there; we just have to seek it ourselves. Of all the modern inventions in the last 50 years, the internet has to be one of the most valuable to small farmers. From more efficient and painless ways to slaughter chickens to how to butcher groundhogs; I have found detailed instruction and videos online. Researching self sufficient practices is time very well spent. There are also numerous books out there with excellent instruction; my personal favorite are the Foxfire books.

Basic Tools

While you do not need fancy tools you do need some basic tools to get you started. If you are slaughtering any animal larger than a chicken you will likely need a firearm. While Kosher and Halal practices are also excellent forms of slaughtering, for the novice a rifle will make the process less traumatic. Be aware that you will need to be skilled with your firearm and take all the necessary safety and legal precautions to own and operate one. Firearm safety is a continual and important practice on any farm. I am not a firearm expert so can only give some suggestions to consider. Having the assistance of a more experienced farmer is always preferable when you are getting started. Experienced local farmers are often a forgotten resource. A small rifle with less recoil is going to be the best money spent. Larger and more high powered rifles should only be used for hunting. A larger gun can be potentially dangerous when slaughtering an animal close up and can damage your meat. If you are unfamiliar with firearms I would highly recommend getting instruction from an expert and doing a hearty amount of research before attempting to slaughter your animal.

Hanging Venison

Once your animal is slaughtered you will need a place that is cool in temperature and free from insects and pests to hang it. We typically do the bulk of our slaughtering in the late Fall so the heat and insects are not an issue. A warm day can ruin all of your hard work. If you are working up your meat right away there is nothing wrong with hanging the animal from a tree or barn tier. For most of humanity's existence there were no indoor butchering facilities; people worked up their meat with the seasons as they did everything else. Having a freshwater source and a table nearby to place tools and hunks of meat are essential to making your job easier. When I butcher chickens I do it next to our spring and use a fold up plastic table that I can sterilize easily.

The most important processing tools you will use are a couple of good sharp knives and sharpening tools and a small hand saw. As you process your meat your knives will dull quickly. To avoid damage to the meat and your own frustration be sure to take the time to sharpen your tools. We use a small saw that has replaceable blades and small teeth. You can get special bone saws; but, I would be cautious about getting expensive tools when you can likely find what you need in your local hardware store. If you are planning on grinding any of your meat and you are able to, a good old hand grinder will be more than adequate. We have used various electric meat grinders and have found that if you are purchasing anything less than an industrial grinder you will be making that purchase again. We went back to a very old heavy duty cast iron grinder and it works better than anything we have used. The old grinder has the added benefit of keeping children busy as well. Any time you can include children in meat processing and raising animals, that is some of the most valuable education you can provide for them. Meat slicers are handy; but, if you are only slicing a portion of your meat the clean up of a slicer is almost not worth the effort. When thin slicing meat it helps to partially freeze the meat before slicing.

Hand Meat Grinder

Packaging Your Meat Cuts

When it comes to packaging your meat after you have cut and cleaned it that is really up to your preference. We have experimented with a variety of packaging methods all with similar success. If you are trying to avoid plastic, butcher paper works well. The disadvantage of butcher paper is storing the meat in the freezer for an extended period it may get freezer burn. If you want to use paper and have long term storage I would suggest doing a layer of plastic wrap outside of the butcher paper. Due to some of the recent exposure to the dangers of aluminum foil I would not recommend using foil directly in contact with the meat; although, it can be an extra insulator on the outside of another safer product. I have wrapped meat in wax paper and then aluminum foil before; but, it is difficult to get the wax paper off of the meat when it is frozen. Plastic wrap works well; however, there are some health concerns with using plastic which of course you must use your own educated judgment. If you do use common plastic wrap I would suggest wrapping it with two to three good layers to avoid freezer burn. Vacuum seal methods are an excellent way to store meat in a deep freeze long term and it is not very costly, if you are comfortable with the usage of plastic.

If you have a limited amount of freezer storage or are concerned with the energy consumption of an extra freezer canning meat is another excellent method of storage. I once canned a whole deer and we ate on it all winter. There are some health concerns with processing meat and I would recommend that you are extremely cautious in following the procedures for canning meat. A good place to source reliable information on how to can any type of food is your local extension office. Most extension offices hold classes on processing foods and have a wealth of resources.

Good clean practices, raising healthy animals, paying attention to temperatures of your meat during slaughter, and proper storage practices are the key to creating your own healthy meat. Processing your meat at home without commercial grade tools has clear advantages over purchasing your meat from commercial meat companies. Knowing how your animals are treated and knowing for sure that the handling of your meat was done safely can only be guaranteed if you are doing that process yourself. The benefits of being connected to your food in a personal way will create a much more healthy cycle of food for you and the environment. If you go to all the personal investment of growing and processing your own animal; none of that animal will go to waste; and you will ensure the health and happiness of that animal thereby valuing and appreciating the life of that animal so much more than even the very best commercial growers.