This New England transplant has learned that buckets on trees are one of the first reliable signs that spring is coming. And we’re so hungry for it.
Steam starts to rise from small sugar shacks in the hills, and on the weekends you can see fleece-jacketed neighbors wander toward these little barns like bears staggering out of hibernation, drawn to pancakes and company. The sap flows in the maple trees, the syrup soaks into the pancakes, and conversation gets lively again.
If you have even one maple tree in your backyard, you can distill some fortifying sweetness all on your own. Maple sugar season is brief and intense, like spring—the sweetest sap only flows when the days get just a little bit warm but nights are still cold. Practical magic like this is so worth attempting in even the smallest quantities—it reliably lifts me out of winter-induced fatigue and back to a state of wonder. Embarking on this process with your kids only magnifies the magic. Sugar from trees? Are we living in Candyland?
It doesn’t even have to be a sugar maple. Really! We tap two trees; one is a Norway maple, and the other a red maple. The sap from sugar maples has a naturally higher sugar content, which means less boiling time to get a very sweet syrup. But I love the hearty, complex maple flavor of our homemade syrup.
Our sugaring “operation” is completely lackadaisical. We really don’t know what the heck we’re doing, and you don’t have to either. I confess we’re in it for the process as much as the product. (Although, fair warning, you could get hooked and find yourself poring over University of Vermont studies of sugar content variation.) We don’t have a hydrometer or a candy thermometer. We don’t have a sugar shack or a cauldron over a fire, just a willingness to steam up the windows of the house on raw March evenings while we boil a few gallons of sap down to a level that tastes right. The difference between something that’s 1-5% sugar (the sap) and 65-70% sugar (syrup) is heat and patience. There’s got to be some kind of metaphor in there.
Tapping Your Trees
This is the only part of the process that requires a little bit of specialized equipment. You can purchase a few spiles (the taps that act as tiny sap faucets), buckets, and covers online in various places, but if you’re in a northerly region where syruping is common, your best bet is to visit a sugar shack and talk to the proprietor. I’ve never met one who didn’t love to jaw about the process. We got our handful of supplies from a maple producer who was switching from buckets to the new system of taps, lines, and tanks. (Bonus: you might get to eat some pancakes while you’re there.)
7/16ths inch drill bit
hammer or mallet
bucket (optional – you can use any clean container that will hang off the spile)
Choose a maple tree at least 10 inches around. This process does create a wound that the tree will need to heal, so make sure you choose a tree mature enough to handle it. Pick a spot on the trunk about 3-4 feet from the ground, on the sunniest (south facing) side, if possible. If you’ve tapped this tree before, make sure you pick a new spot at least 6 inches away from last year’s hole. Drill a hole at a slight upward angle (so the sap will flow down), 2 to 3 inches deep. You need to get past the bark, into the sapwood, but not into the heartwood of the tree.
Place the spile in the hole and tap it in with the hammer. You want to be gentle here; don’t split the wood, or your precious sap will leak out all over instead of dripping down the spile.
If you’ve chosen a warmish day, in just a few seconds you’ll find sap starting to drip off the end of the spile. I dare you not to grin with delight.
If you’ve got a bucket, hang it on the hook to catch this steady drip, and put your cover in place, too. I love the thoughtful design of our old spiles; there’s a small hole on top to thread the cover’s wire through, creating a hinge. Simple and marvelous. If you’re using a plastic container, make a hole for the hook and position your container so the sap can flow in, but the top is shielded from rain and bugs.
Now just wait. We check our two-gallon buckets daily on our heartiest tree. If you’re using a smaller container, you might want to check more frequently.
Harvest and Boil
The bad news: it takes 40 to 50 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. The good news: most of the process is pretty low-maintenance.
flour sack towel or cheesecloth
colander or strainer
sap storage bucket (optional)
large deep roasting pan or stock pot
jar funnel (optional)
storage jars (I highly recommend glass)
Remove any bits of bark or adventurous insects by straining your sap through a colander lined with cheesecloth or a flour sack towel.
If you’ve got lots or can’t boil it off just now, you can store sap in a clean bucket outside or on a porch. Then onto the stove it goes, over a high flame. For a long, long time. If it’s not too cold to crack a window, that helps to vent the steam. You’ll find varying opinions on this, but I don’t mind steaming up the house, especially if we’re nursing spring colds. The sap doesn’t start to have much of a smell until it gets about 2/3 of the way boiled down, anyway, and then it smells like a walk in the woods and a batch of cookies all at once.
I tend to leave my stock pot on the back burner and just add more sap to it once there’s room. I figure all that boiling and re-boiling has got to kill any hardy microbes trying to set up shop. A wider pan evaporates faster, but the stock pot works fine for me. I turn on the burner as soon as I get home with kids and backpacks in tow, and I leave it on while I’m cooking dinner and all evening long, refilling it with the day’s harvest. After the sap has reduced to a couple of inches in the stock pot, taking on a bit of color and sweetness, I set it aside in a smaller saucepan until I have time to watch it more closely.
Finish and Store
This part requires a little more attention, but is still easy enough to keep an eye on while you’re pinging around the kitchen with other tasks. Boil your almost-syrup over more moderate heat now, testing its flavor and consistency with a spoon periodically.
Two easy tests along the way: 1) I tend to notice more foaming when we’re getting to the final stages. 2) Drop some boiling syrup from a spoon into a jar of ice water. If it immediately forms a blob and sinks, you’re there.
When it looks and tastes like syrup, turn off the heat, and strain it into your jars while it’s still hot. The larger pores of cheesecloth work better than a flour sack towel for finished syrup, but I make do. Paper towels and coffee filters, however, are pretty useless here.
Place a clean lid on your jar, cool to room temperature, and refrigerate your syrup for up to three months. Not that it’ll last that long.
It really is a kind of magic, you know. According to a helpful FAQ from the University of Minnesota, chemical reactions take place in the boiling process to create the distinct brown color and maple flavor we adore. “Neither the exact nature of these reactions nor the identity of the reacting substances are known. That is why chemists have been unable to create an artificial maple syrup flavor that even remotely tastes like the real product.” Take that, Mrs. Butterworth.
Try your homemade maple syrup in these favorite recipes:
Melissa Clark’s Olive Oil Granola (but I make it with almonds)
And of course! Tall, Fluffy Buttermilk Pancakes from Smitten Kitchen