Some things seem overly daunting before diving into it. Maple sugaring can be one of those things. However, it’s actually pretty simple once you break it down. In the maple sugaring part 1 post, we talked about tree identification, equipment and tapping. Now comes the fun and tasty part, boiling.
Maple sap is primarily made up of two things: sugar and water (lots of it). To make syrup, you must remove some water. To go further and make maple sugar, you need to remove all of the water. For backyard sugarers, there are two ways to get rid of all that water. One way is to freeze most of it, remove the ice, and what water is left behind has a much higher concentration of sugar since sugar water freezes more slowly. You will still need to boil some additional water out. We aren’t the only ones to remove water from sap this way. A few days ago I came across what I call a sapcicle (an icicle made of sap) hanging from where a squirrel had nibbled at the bark of a maple branch. At the very bottom of the sapcicle, there was a tiny drop of syrup hanging, ready to drip. Squirrels will often make these small nicks along branches of maple trees and come along later to lap up some of that sugary goodness for a late winter boost of energy. This past year, I’ve had as many as six squirrels at once visiting my sap buckets, bypassing the and helping themselves to a drink.
The standard way to remove water is to boil the sap, banishing the water in the form of steam. You can get a fancy prefabricated evaporating system or rig up your own backyard system with found materials. The Vermont Evaporator Company has a neat design that can be converted to a grill or smoker during the off season. If I had more than just a couple of trees to tap, one of their evaporators would definitely be worth the investment. As it stands, the sap from one sugar maple and one silver maple can easily be boiled over the stove. If you are worried about peeling wallpaper (I’ve never seen this happen but people swear it will) then a good camp pot over a fire will work too. The pot method requires a watchful eye so that your sap does not boil all the way down and burn. To avoid this, be sure to check it at regular intervals and add more sap when it starts to get low. Slowly over time, your sap will start to become syrup.
When is it officially syrup? Well, according to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food & Markets:
“All grades of packaged maple syrup shall have a minimum density matching its temperature (…), which is equivalent to 36 degrees Baume Modulus 145 or 66.9 degrees Brix at 60 degrees Fahrenheit on instruments calibrated at 60 degrees Fahrenheit or other equivalent measurement of density, as determined by the Secretary of Agriculture.”
Here is a link to all of the Vermont regulations but unless you are planning on selling your maple syrup, don’t fret too much about getting the density exactly right. Instead, when you take a spoonful of the syrup from the pot and pour it, watch how it drips off. When it starts to sheet off rather than pour like water, then it is ready. I like to pour my syrup off in quart jars, but we go through a lot of syrup. If your use is less, you may wish to go with pint jars.
This sugaring season, I’ve gone beyond syrup, boiling further until all of the water is evaporated, leaving only the sugar. This was tricky and took a couple of tries. You start with syrup and bring it to a simmer. It will continue to reduce further and further until
there is nothing but shiny bubbles in the bottom of the pan. Be sure not to have the burner on high at this point, since that will almost certainly lead to burned sugar. Once I got close, I turned the burner down to low and vigorously stirred the bubbly concoction until it started to lose its shine. It will start to foam and then the foam will thicken and fall, leaving pure maple sugar granules. During my first attempt, I got too excited at this point and called my wife over saying, “It’s happening! It’s HAPPENING!!!” I forgot a crucial step – removing it from the heat. I burned most of the sugar.
I was much more focused during the second attempt and remembered to remove the pot from the heat once the foam fell. Stirring vigorously, I could see the the individual granules revealing themselves, forming a sugary powder at the bottom of the pan. There were some clumps but continued stirring and mashing with the spoon resolved most of this. A quick run through a coffee grinder took care of the extra stubborn clumps. Some sugar did stick to the bottom but some boiling water dissolved it right off. In theory you could then reduce that water to extract the maple sugar again but I haven’t tried it yet. The end result was a very fine sugar with a slight golden brown hue and the scent and flavor of maple. I can’t wait to try this new ingredient out in various recipes.