In late winter, 2011, we attended a small festival called Maple Syrup Time at a little park in Lake County in northwest Indiana. We were living in Crown Point at the time and emerging from a long winter in our tiny apartment. It was a pleasant, sunny day. We were just looking for a fun afternoon, not a new hobby, but that is exactly what we found. It turns out, tapping trees and making maple syrup is a pretty simple task!
The process starts with maple trees. Lucky for us, we have four large silver maple trees in our front yard at Novel Farm. A tree needs to be at least 10 inches in diameter before tapping. If the tree is over 18 inches in diameter, it can hold 2 taps, and a tree measuring about 28 inches or larger can manage 3 taps. Try spacing out your taps evenly. In our experience, taps on the south side of the tree collect the most syrup.
The next thing you need is cooperative weather. The temperature needs to reach about 40℉ during the day, and drop below 32℉ at night. Where we are in Indiana, this typically occurs in February and early March. However, the past few years have been as stubborn as an old mule. Regardless, November and December are good times to start collecting gallon milk jugs, if that is what you are going to use to collect your sap. You can buy a bit fancier supplies, but we are frugal in our maple syrup endeavors and honestly don’t notice much of a difference.
When you are prepared and the weather is right, use a 7/16” drill bit and drill at least 1.5” into the tree at a slight upward angle. Then lightly tap a ½” steel pipe nipple (you can buy these from any hardware store), into the tree with a hammer. If you are worried about the pipe nipple being too large for the 7/16” hole, I can assure you it works. The smaller hole guarantees a tight fit for the pipe nipple. Sap can leak out below the pipe nipple if the fit is not tight enough. If you are still worried, just widen the hole a bit at the entry point.
Once your taps are in, they’re ready for gallon milk jugs. Be sure you have washed them out with soap. If you are worried about a residual milk smell, pour a little bit of lemon juice into the container with warm water and let it sit for a few hours with the cap on. When the milk jugs are ready to go on the tree, cut a hole about ½” square just above the handle and below the cap of the milk jug. Slide it onto the pipe nipples. We always slide bungee cords around the tree and through the handles of the milk jugs. A gallon of sap can get heavy, and it’s a major bummer to lose a gallon of collected sap. When the jugs are nearly full, we collect it in 5 gallon buckets. If enough sap is collected before we can boil it down, we store it in a clean, food-safe 40 gallon trash can.
After you have collected a few gallons of sap, you’ll want to start boiling it down to syrup. It takes roughly 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup! Experiences like this help us to appreciate the bounty God has given us.
There are a few ways to boil down the sap. Big maple syrup operations have huge evaporators, but the amount of sap we collect each year doesn’t require such heavy duty equipment. We have tried a few different methods, which you’ll find listed below.
The easiest way to boil down the sap is with an 18 quart roaster. We simply pour the sap into the roaster early in the morning, turn it on high, and let it simmer most of the day. If you start early enough, you can pour in another gallon or 2 of sap by noontime.
My next favorite method is to boil the sap down on an outdoor fire. We use six concrete blocks to create three walls. The bricks are stacked two high. A large pot can then be set over the fire with the edges resting on the concrete blocks. This method is the most hands-on, since you have to keep adding wood to the fire throughout the day. It’s also a lot of fun if you like the feeling of connecting with traditional ways of life.
An open fire is the way pioneers and natives before them would have boiled the sap. When we first began our maple syrup adventures we used a turkey broiler, but this method can get quite costly using that much propane. Whatever method you choose just be sure you are doing it outdoors and get an early start!
Keep an eye on the sap, especially during the late afternoon. By evening time, the sap should be a light brown and resemble syrup. Now it’s time to take the sap indoors and begin boiling it down on the stove. It’s going to make your walls sweat like the dickens, so a range fan comes in handy. When it starts to actually boil, you are just about done.
You officially have maple syrup when it reaches 7℉ higher than the boiling point of water. Typically, that’s 219℉ for Indiana. It will stay around 212-214℉ for quite a while, but once the temperature starts to rise, it doesn’t take too long to reach the magic number. If the liquid starts to “rise,” it’s good to go.
The last step is canning maple syrup. Leave ¼” headspace on your jars and follow the steps for hot packing and your maple syrup will last up to two years as long as you keep them stored in a cool, dark location. Once you open a jar of syrup, it must be refrigerated and should last for a year.
Oh yeah, there is one more step. The next morning, make homemade pancakes from scratch and enjoy! Real, natural syrup is a bit more runny than the artificial, corn-syrup laden stuff you buy at the store. The taste is simply out-of-this-world! Try making pancakes with whole wheat flour, and if you really want a country breakfast, try cornmeal pancakes.