Enjoying maple syrup

If you are anything like me, the winter blues are beginning to take a toll. Outside activities may be limited, but now is the time to collect maple syrup.

We might not live in Vermont, a state known for its pure maple syrup, but in the Midwest, maple syrup is not that far away. It might be as close as your backyard.

It doesn’t take many maple trees to produce enough maple syrup to supply family and friends with sweet syrup all year long, and it is much easier than you might think. The supplies needed are few and can easily be obtained from large-scale maple syrup producers or the internet.

Sugar maples are the preferred choice of tree when gathering syrup. Sap from a sugar maple contains more sugar than that of a soft maple, like silver or red maples. Soft maples have a lower sugar concentration but will still produce a sweet syrup. Sap is thin, water-like and clear with a slight taste of sugar. It takes about 40 quarts of sugar maple sap to make one quart of syrup – more when the sap is from a soft maple.

In Illinois, sap begins to run when daytime temperatures reach at least 40 degrees during the day and drop below freezing at night, usually mid to late February.

Spiles (metal taps) and filter clothes can be found on the internet or from syrup producers. Collection and transport buckets can be found locally. Thoroughly clean the buckets to prevent bacteria growth.

To begin the collection process, drill a 2-inch hole with a 7/16-inch drill bit into the tree at a slight incline on the south-facing side of the tree. Clean the hole out by taking the drill in and out of the hole a few times. Take a spile and tap it into the hole and hang a clean 5-gallon bucket on the tap. If the sap is not flowing, it is either too cold or the spile needs to go into the tree farther.

It may appear the sap is barely trickling from the tree, but it is possible to collect as much as five gallons of sap from a single tree in just one day. On large trees, two taps can be used. Do not miss a day of collecting sap or you could end up with buckets overflowing. When collecting the sap, take a clean rubber bucket to contain it. Once collected, refrigerate as soon as possible. Do not store the sap for more than 48 hours before beginning the boiling process.

You cannot have syrup without boiling the sap. It is a long process. Plan a full day to thicken it.

I use large soup pots to boil sap. Pour it through cheesecloth placed in a strainer to remove any impurities. Filter clothes are available for this and the straining process when the boiling is finished.

Turn stove burners to high and wait. Do NOT leave the syrup unattended. Overcooking could cause the syrup to crystallize, darken and thicken.

As it cooks down, add more sap to the pot. Over time, move the sap to a smaller pot so it is easier to work with. Once sap reaches 219 degrees Fahrenheit on a candy thermometer, it will have small bubbles in the boiling. Remove it from the heat. The sap is now a thin syrup. Use thick felt cloths to filter the syrup into canning jars and seal the lids tightly.

Maple syrup collection only lasts a couple of weeks. Once trees begin to bud, harvest and production is over.

It’s now time to enjoy that 100 percent pure maple syrup.

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