I'm happy to report that our little experiment in backyard alchemy was a success! After many hours of boiling down sap over an open fire, we are now the proud owners of a little less than a quart of beautiful, amber maple syrup.
I'm probably biased by all the hours we put into it, but I could swear the flavor is superior to other maple syrups I've had -- I taste both butter and vanilla amidst the sweetness and the maple.
Below is a recap of our process in pictures (seeing as they're worth a thousand words and all.) And here's a link to an easy-to-follow how-to that walks you through the process and a very detailed FAQ from Cornell in case you'd like to try maple sugaring on your own next year.
Turning Sap Into Syrup
We began by tapping eight sugar maples at my in-laws' house.
Using an 1/2" bit, Rahm drilled a small hole about 4 inches deep into the trunk of each tree roughly 4 1/2 feet above the ground, then pushed the metal stiles in with a few gentle blows of a hammer. The sap began to flow right away.
We used a mix of yogurt containers and milk jugs to catch the sap.
Milk jugs are definitely a better choice than yogurt containers since they hold a lot more sap and are also easier to hang and empty.
We discovered that the sap, itself, is absolutely delicious - cold and sweet with a mild maple flavor. We ended up drinking it straight out of the tree.
Our first attempt at making syrup was conducted indoors which is not recommended, particularly if you have wallpaper in your house, as the steam will peel it right off the walls! Due to our inexperience and lack of candy thermometer, we ended up boiling our five gallons of sap just a tad too long and it solidified in the jar as it cooled.
Luckily for us, this maple sugar is an incredible treat. We've been using to sweeten our tea and coffee (not surprisingly, it imparts a lovely maple flavor) and as a topping on vanilla and chocolate ice cream -- soooooo good!
But Rahm really wanted to make SYRUP so we embarked on a second attempt using an open fire and with a lot more sap on hand to play around with.
We boiled the sap down in our big enameled canning pot and a couple of much smaller camping pots.
We invited some friends over to keep us company. Will and his friend, Rio, ate Irish soda bread, played with racecars and stomped around in the little stream that runs next to our house. Unfortunately, they moved too quickly for me to get a good photo of them together so this one is just little Will picking the raisins out of his bread.
After night fell, we brought the greatly reduced sap inside to finish it off on the stove top. I put my new candy thermometer to use to ensure that we did not boil too long this time around. When you make syrup, you shoot to catch it at the point when it boils at 7 degrees above the temperature at which water boils (which is somewhere between 200 and 212 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the altitude.)
The final step was to strain the syrup through cloth (flannel is recommended if you have it) to remove any wood particles, bark, dirt, fiber, etc.
The fruits of our labor -- slightly less than a quart of delicious, homemade maple syrup! Beautiful, no?
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