Ramps: A Study in Phenology

When the Man Cub was only four months old, I strapped him to my chest and hiked half a mile into the forest to harvest ramps from my top secret honey hole.  They were the first wild edible that I harvested with him.  That reason alone would be enough to make them my favorite wild food.  To put it over the top, they are delicious – combining the best flavors of both onions and garlic while adding something otherworldly that you can only get from growing in the filtered sunlight of a damp forested hillside.  I love ramps (a.k.a. wild leeks).  They are ephemeral, which only adds to their mystique.  The little green bunny ears start to poke through the leaf litter almost as soon as the last of the snow melts and they have mostly gone to seed by the time the trees fully leaf out and cast shade upon the forest floor.  Knowing the timing of when your favorite patch is ready for harvest is crucial.

40968047675_d2740bf148_oThere are many other ephemeral plants that can help clue you in as to when it’s time to hit up your patch of wild leeks.  One such plant is Dutchman’s Breeches (.  The small fringed leaves pop up first, followed soon after by the bright white and yellow flowers, which resemble a pair of breeches or pants hanging upside down.  As you can see in the photo, Dutchman’s Breeches (left) and Ramps  (right) grow concurrently.  The ramps in this photo are still young and not quite fully mature.  At this stage, they are excellent for sauteing up and serving as a side or in an omelet.

Trilium (Dicentra cucullaria) is another spring ephemeral flower that grows during this 26998449817_e34655bd04_omagical time of year.  The trillium in this photo are not quite blooming but the flower buds are present and on the edge.  I believe they were actually blooming only two days after this picture was taken.  Again, you can see the young ramps in the background.  Paying attention to what else is growing alongside your favorite edibles makes you more aware and tunes your internal clock.  When you start to see trillium growing, it is time to visit your ramp patch.

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This photo of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) was taken during the same morning walk as the previous pictures of  trillium and Dutchman’s Breeches.  Bloodroot may not always grow in the same locations as wild leeks, but their bloom does tend to correspond with when the wild leeks are ready to pick.

LeeksWild leeks are highly sought after and often over harvested.  To harvest sustainably, it is best to follow the Rule of 10: for every ten plants there are, you can harvest one.  In a good patch of ramps, this rule will still yield more than enough for your own personal use.  Often times, you can find entire hillsides blanketed in green.  When you are lucky enough to come across such a patch, you can often smell onions in the air long before you see them.  Even stand such as these are susceptible to over harvest.  It can take up to seven years for a wild leek to mature from seed to plant.  This is why it is crucial to leave more than enough behind, ensuring future harvests for generations to come.  I only share locations of major ramp populations with those whom I trust will harvest sustainably.

Identifying ramps is fairly easy.  They have two (occasionally three) oblong green leaves33877285334_8867388553_o emerging from a central stem.  This stem extends into the ground where, if you dig carefully, you can find a white bulb.  Sometimes the stems may appear red, as in the photo to the right.  Once you add in the unmistakable onion/garlic smell, it is difficult to mistake them for anything else.  I tend to only harvest one leaf from each plant, leaving the bulb and the other leaf behind.  This ensures that the plant will be able to go on to flower and produce seeds.  The only time I harvest the bulb is if I were to make pickled ramps.

One of my favorite ways to eat ramps is also one of the easiest.  Chop up a handful of ramp greens and stir them into a pan full of scrambled eggs.  Toss on some cheddar cheese and serve on buttered toast for an open faced breakfast sandwich.  28114369798_5bb2398c8e_o.jpg

Rainbow Trout w/Wilted Dandelion Greens

Daycare was closed, so I took the afternoon off from work.  I had heard that VT Fish and Wildlife Department had just stocked Sunset Lake in Brookfield, VT a couple days prior and the Cub and I had been itching to wet our lines.  It was time to fish.  We arrived mid-afternoon and were welcomed with a foreboding drizzle.  I briefly thought about turning around and heading home but as we drove across the bridge, we saw a fisherman hold up his stringer full of 12 to 20 inch trout.  We parked the car and suited up.0427181428bI baited the Man Cub’s hook with a couple of salmon eggs, hooked on the bobber, and helped him cast out into the middle of the swirling school of rainbows.  About thirty seconds passed before the orange bobber was ripped beneath the surface.  Pole bent solidly over, the Man Cub shouted, “Whoa!  It’s a big one!”

He was right.  I held onto the pole to make sure it didn’t disappear along with the bobber, and the Cub reeled as fast as his little hand could.  “It’s JUMPING!”  The trout rose up out of the water and shook its head, revealing just how large it was.  It was far larger than 0427181325.jpgany trout that I had hooked into before.  We managed to wear it down and bring it to shore.  The Man Cub held the pole while I fished it out of the water and took out the hook.  Once the fish was safely on the stringer, I handed it to him to hold.  He grabbed the stringer with both hands which were shaking with excitement, smiling  from ear to ear he shouted, “It’s a rainbow trout!  It’s a BIG rainbow trout!”

By this point, there were several other anglers moving our way, crowding in to get a line out to where the fish were.  The Man Cub held out his fish for the men to see and they all congratulated him on what was his first trout ever.  We put the trout in the water, tied the stringer off to a rock and rebaited.  The school of freshly stocked rainbows were cruising a loop from the end of the bridge we were all standing on, 30 yards out to the edge of the receding ice and back.  Massive shadows lurking just beneath the surface turned the grown flannel wearing men into small children, pointing and squirming with as much excitement as my own two year old Man Cub.  Rods were bent, fish were jumping, and bearded men were squealing.

We ended up catching five trout within about 45 minutes, all of which were over 10 inches in length.  Our largest two, 17 and 15 inches, would serve as the night’s main 0427181613course.  The rest were released to tickle the lines of future anglers.  After cleaning the fish back at home, we went out into the yard to harvest the first dandelion greens of the year.  I clipped a few leaves from each basal cluster along the edge of the garden, leaving some behind to ensure they would have enough energy to produce 0427181753.jpgflowers for bees and dandelion wine.

Spring foods tend to have a fresh flavor to them that brighten the palate, which is a welcome change after a winter of eating squash, root vegetables, and thick meaty stews.  I chose to keep this meal simple, allowing the ingredients to speak  for themselves.  Some light salt and pepper on either side of the fish, along with some finely chopped chives stuffed inside was all that the trout took before slapping it whole onto the grill.  I carefully supervised the fish, making sure that it was not overcooked.  Occasionally lifting the sides with a large spatula, I checked to see how the skin was crisping.  Once adequately browned, I flipped it to the other side and repeated.

While I watched over the grill, my wife wilted the dandelion greens in a pad of butter and whipped up some couscous with some olive oil and fresh chives from the garden.  The trout, which hung off either side of the plate, was cooked to perfection – skin crisp, flesh orange-pink, flaking and moist.  A bitter bite of dandelion green offset the sweetness of the trout.  Salt, pepper and a few chives were the only spices added to this meal.  It had already been seasoned with the excitement of a child’s first trout fishing experience and that was flavor enough.

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Maple Cream

Temperatures are warming, buds are swelling, and taps are being pulled.  Sugaring season is winding down.  Hopefully you’ve had a chance to make some of your own syrup from your backyard trees.  If not, there are plenty of sugaring operations ready to  sell you some of this season’s syrup hot off the evaporator.  There are many good ways to consume maple syrup: on pancakes, waffles, or french toast; in yogurt; on cottage cheese; stirred into tea or in a latte; as a glaze on roasted meats; or heated and served on snow.  The one down side of maple syrup, if you are the type that has to find something wrong in anything nearing perfection, is that it tends to lend a dark and heavy flavor.  But fear not, there is a solution to this and it is called maple cream.

26295361677_b4b530577a_oYou start off with 100% pure grade A maple syrup.  Heat it to 24 degrees Fahrenheit above the boiling point of water and then transfer the heated syrup immediately to a bowl sitting in an ice water bath.  Allow the temperature to cool to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, remove the bowl from the ice water bath and begin stirring.  Continue stirring.  And stirring.  And stirring… You should notice that the syrup has thickened and is becoming tacky.  Keep stirring.  Stir with a wooden spoon until you the color changes to a light creamy brown and the syrup loses its shine.  At this point, the maple cream should be smooth.  Pour into a mason jar and store in the refrigerator.

There are many uses for maple cream.  Some folks enjoy putting a dollop or two into their morning coffee.  You can spread it on top of fresh homemade donuts.  My personal favorite way to consume this tasty maple treat is to spread it on toasted english muffins.  Despite its heavy syrupy source, the flavor of maple cream is bright and light on the tongue but still packs a sugary wallop with a distinctive maple kick.  It is like its parent ingredient in that there really is no wrong way to eat it.  40759330574_7e3cdd4120_o

From Tree to Syrup to Sugar: Maple Sugaring part 2

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.

40707585271_e824db0397_oMaple 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 14174954187_628850bf5f_o (1)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 39308313690_9c76d087e8_ogranules 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.39308314640_748db2eddc_o

Birch Beer

Root beer is a taste from my childhood.  Covered in dirt from the baseball diamond, mouth lightly coated in the chalky dust of the baselines after a few unnecessary but fun slides, there was no better feeling than chugging down a post game treat of root beer from the concession stand.  The creamy foam bubbled against the nose while the scent of woodsy mint tickled the olfactory gland.  At the time, I had no idea what methyl salicylate was nor did I care.  All I knew was that the flavor of root beer was transcendent, liquid perfection.

Years later, while living in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, I came across

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Plated bark of mature tree  

 another drink that transported me back to my childhood.  Birch beer is made from the inner bark of black or yellow birch trees.  Though unrelated to sassafras, sarsaparilla, or wintergreen, black and yellow birch contain the same methyl salicylate, giving it the same nostalgic woodsy mint flavor that brings me back to those post game drinks of my childhood.  A friend and I did a brief internet search for a recipe and tried brewing our own batch.  The result was an under flavored clear liquid, tasting strongly of yeast.  It has been 10 years since that first attempt, so I don’t recall where exactly we went wrong.  After a decade of foraging and cooking experience, I decided to give it another go.

24573023077_59b8604d83_oTo make birch beer, first you must find a birch tree.  That first failed batch was made with black birch.  Here in central VT, that species is hard to come by.  Yellow birch is much more common and has the same distinctive birch flavor.  The bark of yellow birch is peely like other birch species, however, it tends to peel in thinner, wispy strips, as opposed to the larger sheets of paper birch.  The color is also more of a golden and has a slight shine to it.  Older specimens may have thicker, plate-like bark with clearly defined lenticels.  If you  are uncertain of the species before you, try the scratch and sniff test.  Take one of the outermost branches, scratch off a bit of bark from a twig, and smell.  If it smells reminiscent of root beer or wintergreen, then you have the right tree.

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There are many conflicting instructions out there.  Some say to use the sap of the birch tree while others say to use the inner bark.  Still other say to cut up and use the entire twig.  There are recipes using boiling water, luke warm water, and cool water.  I’ve decided to go with cutting small branches of yellow birch into 1 to 2 inch pieces and steeping in warm water to extract the flavor.  If you use boiling water, it will extract too much tannic acid, causing your tea to become bitter.  Warming water on the stove to just below a simmer should work just fine.  You can make any sized batch that you want.  I happened to have a half gallon mason jar sitting empty on the counter.  After filling the mason jar 3/4 the way full, I poured in the warm water and allowed it to steep for at least 3 hours.  I’ve found that sitting overnight maximizes the flavor.  The color of the liquid should be a deep orange brown.

Steeping birch twigsAt this point, once you’ve strained out the twigs, you have a birch tea.  This can be served as is or with a bit of brown sugar or honey to round out the rough edges.  I like the flavor so much that I tend to drink it at this stage.  However, if you are going to make a true birch beer, you will need to ferment your brew.  This is done with the introduction of sugar and yeast.  Stirring in raw honey kills two birds with one stone.  The raw honey, having never been heated, still contains live yeast which will feed upon the sugars once dissolved into the tea.  As the yeast digests the sugars, it will  release carbon dioxide,thus carbonizing your drink.  For my half gallon of birch tea, I used half a cup of honey and half a cup of brown sugar.  I put on an airlock lid to allow the gases to escape safely, avoiding a counter bomb.   If you don’t have an airlock, you could also tie on muslin or cheese cloth to cover (though airlocks are more fool proof).   The fermentation process could be sped up with the introduction of your choice of brewing yeast, if you are in a hurry.  Just be sure to refrigerate after a day or two to avoid a slightly boozy soda.  Or not…

I shared a glass with my two year old son (The Man Cub), so I was made sure to stop theBirch Soda fermentation before reaching the boozy state.  Three days were enough to produce a light carbonation.  I transferred the birch beer into a swing top bottle and refrigerated it to stop the fermentation process.   The end result was a pleasant drink with just enough bubble and a strong aroma of methyl salicylate.  It was met with the approval of the Man Cub.  Upon asking him if it tasted good he responded, “It tastes like booch bear.  It makes me feel better because I drink so much booch bear.”

I agreed.

Maple Sugaring Part 1: Getting Started

Folks around here can look to many different signs as the first harbinger of spring.  It could be the first few red-winged blackbirds flying into the marshes after spending the winter in warmer climes.  To some, it is the first meal of wild leeks or fiddlehead ferns.  In my opinion, there is no sign of spring more true than when the days rise above freezing while the nights fall back below and the sap starts running.  Sugars that have been stored over winter in the tree’s roots are carried up in the sap through the trunks, branches, and twigs, eventually providing energy to the buds so that they may produce leaves.  Without fresh green leaves, there would be no spring.   The sap run is the forest taking a good yawn and stretch after a long winter’s nap, readying itself for the flurry of bright green growth to come.

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is the most common tree tapped for the purposes of making syrup.  I have one healthy sugar maple in my back yard that I have tapped for three years now.  Every year it has produced well, allowing me to boil down about one quart of syrup each year.  I also have a very large silver maple (Acer saccharinum) that I have tapped for the first time this year.  Sugar maples have an average of 2% sugar content in their sap while silver maples have an average of 1.7%.  Three tenths of a percentage point is not enough to deter me.  Another member of the maple family,

Silver maple with metal spile
Silver maple with  metal spile

boxelder (Acer negundo), has an even lower sugar content, but this year I tapped one of those too.  Boiling the sap from each species in separate batches, I will conduct a taste test at the end of the sugaring season.  So far the sugar and silver maples look nearly identical, while the boxelder syrup is much lighter in color, almost white – supposedly .  Other species that can be tapped for syrup production include: red maple (Acer rubrum), paper birch (Betula papyrifera), yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), black birch (Betula lenta), black walnut (Juglans nigra), butternut (Juglans cinerea), and shagbark hickory (Carya ovata).  Of these, I’ve only had hickory syrup.  It was much lighter in color and taste than maple syrup but equally delicious.

Many people may be intimidated by the prospect of tapping their backyard trees.  Don’t be.  It is only as difficult as you make it.  It is true that it takes 40 gallons of raw sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.  My one tap in our sugar maple can produce 10 to 20 gallons of sap each year.  I may not meet all of my family’s syrup consumption from this one tree, but the syrup that I do produce is much more enjoyable than store bought because there is a personal connection.  That sugar came from my back yard.

Also, who says that you have to make syrup?  Maple sap has many different uses.  In my  previous post, I used it to cook up some chicken legs.  Just this evening, I boiled someMaple Bratwurst bratwurst in some partially reduce silver maple sap, allowing the sap to cook down completely.  This not only infused the brats with the mapley goodness, but also coated them in a pleasantly sticky maple glaze.  You could even drink the sap without processing  it at all.  In fact, this is quickly becoming one of the latest health food (drink) crazes, with canned sap being sold in most grocery stores.

A word of caution: maple sap can serve as a natural laxative, especially when consumed in large quantities.  The first time that I ever tapped a tree, I tapped 3 trees with a couple of friends for fun.  We were just going to boil the sap down over a campfire.  The three trees that we tapped were more productive than we expected and we quickly became overrun with sap.  Every night after hours boiling in a small cast iron dutch oven, we ended up storing gallons of left over sap in empty pickle jars which were then stuffed into the communal refrigerator.  We drank nothing but sap for days on end.  We drank sap until the smell of maple syrup oozed from our pores.   We spent an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom.  I only have the occasional glass of sap now, but don’t let my experience stop you from consuming your own maple sap straight from the tree.  Everything in moderation.

Start up equipment:

Aside from a tree or two, you will also need a drill, a spile, some sort of receptacle for catching and holding the sap once it drips from the spile, and a pot for boiling the sap in on the stovetop.  Big time operations nowadays use a complicated network of rubber tubing that all drains down to a large catchment that is then hauled away to the evaporator.  A metal bucket will do just fine for our purposes.  You can get sap buckets at most hardware or lawn and garden stores this time of year.  In a pinch, a clean empty milk jug will work.

Spiles are what you pound into the holes that you drill in the tree.  They have a hole at either end and guide the sap down into your bucket.  Without a spile, the sap would just run down the side of the tree.  You can purchase metal spiles at the same locations that sell buckets.  I found some in an antique store for 10 cents a piece.  For the really old school sugaring fans out there, you can make your own spiles by taking a cutting from either a staghorn sumac tree or from an elderberry bush.  Both of these have a soft pith that is easily pushed out with a bamboo skewer, leaving a hollow tube perfect for guiding the sap into your buckets.  The first picture below is an example of an elderberry spile that the Man Cub and I made when we tapped our neighbor’s boxelder tree.  The second photo is of a staghorn sumac spile that has been whittled down to fit the hole.26824241488_037c839842_o40653552832_de15790c7b_o

Identification

All members of the maple family grow in an opposite branching pattern.  This means Opposite branching sugar maplethat each non-terminal bud  (the bud at the end of a branch) has a partner growing on the opposite side of the branch.  You may be able to find examples where there is no twig on the other side but if you were to look closely, you would find a scar opposite of the mate-less twig where its partner previously grew.  The only trees with this opposite pattern are ash, dogwood, and horse chestnut.  Dogwoods species around here in Vermont don’t grow large enough to be confused with a mature maple and horse chestnuts are mostly grown ornamentally.  This leaves ash trees, which can be distinguished from maples by the diamond shaped pattern of their bark.

When trying to separate silver and red maples from sugars, there are a few features to

Silver Maple
Thin, flaky bark of silver maple

look for.  The easiest way to tell them apart is by looking at the leaf, which is rather useless during sugaring season when the trees are bare.  The next best thing is to examine the bark.  Sugar maples tend to have grayish brown barn that forms large vertical plates when mature.  Red maples can be similar in color but the plating of their bark tends to be thinner and more peely.  The bark of silver maples is a much lighter gray and has thinner plates that tend to flake off easily.  If you are still confused, look up at the buds.  I know that this may seem ridiculously difficult, but if you are only trying to distinguish sugar maples from silvers or reds, then it is actually rather simple.

Buds of silver maple are pointed and bullet shaped, whereas the buds of both silver and red maples are larger and more rounded.  When looking up at the canopy of silvers and reds, you can actually see the ball shaped buds.  Take a look at the photo below.  The tree on the left is a silver maple and the tree on the right is a sugar maple.  Here you can clearly see the preponderance of large buds on the tree on the left while the tree on the right appears to have no buds at all upon first glance.  The same holds true when looking at red maples next to sugar maples.40707576291_3d76a297ba_o

Once you’ve found the tree that you’d like to tap, you will want to drill in 1.5 – 2 inches into the tree at a height of about 4 feet.  You can use an electric drill or an old school hand crank drill, just remember that the smaller the hole that you drill, the easier it will be for the tree to heal itself.  Most older metal spiles require a 7/16 size bit while some require only a 5/16 bit.  I recommend using the smaller size, which is all around better for the health of the tree, but if all you have are the older, larger spiles, then go ahead and use those.  In the photo below you can see where I tapped this sugar maple the previous two years using a 7/16 size bit.  The hole furthest to the right is from two years ago and has completely healed over.  Last year’s hole will likely finish healing during this year’s growing season.  You will also notice that each hole is at a slightly different height and at least 4 inches from the previous one.  Be sure to only tap trees at least 12 inches in diameter.  Many folks place two taps on trees larger than 18 inches in diameter and three on even larger trees.  I tend to only drill one tap per tree, no matter the size.  At my small scale, stove top operation, this gives me more than enough sap.Healing spile holesOnce you’ve selected your tree, drilled your hole, placed your spile, it is time to hang your bucket and wait.  Check your buckets at least once a day to avoid spoilage.  If left unattended for too long in warmer weather, your sap will turn cloudy and go rancid.  Raw sap can be stored in a refrigerated space for a day or two until you are ready to boil.  When it is still relatively cold during the day (mid to upper 30’s), I store my sap in a shady area inside a 30 gallon stainless steel garbage can.  Any food grade barrel would work as well.

This should be enough to get you started.  Part 2 will cover the ins and outs of turning your raw sap into syrup.