How to Make Maple Syrup the Old-Fashioned Way
Memories of an Old New England Sugar House
I remember, as a little girl, visiting an old New England sugar house in the dead of winter. The snowbanks were taller than me, and it was cold outside. But in that tiny weathered shack, magic was taking place! Once inside the door, I was greeted with warmth and a sweet, sappy steam. A large metal table sat in the center of the shack. It was peculiar, looking somewhat like a maze. Raw sap was being poured into one corner of the table, and it slowly ran down to the opposite corner, getting darker as it went.
A warm, sweet man greeted me. He asked if I wanted to see a magic trick. I nodded eagerly. He pointed to a spot on the table where the sap was boiling rapidly. Then, he dipped a wooden paddle in a crock and swept it over the boiling sap. Instantly, the sap settled down to a low simmer. I was confused. He did it again. I was still confused. He explained that he could use fat to “tame” the sap. This was all interesting, but it wasn’t why I was here. I wanted to taste the syrup!
The warm man seemed to sense my eagerness, as he pulled out a little paper cup. First, he said, I needed to try the raw sap. He dipped some out of the corner of the table and poured a little in my cup. It was warm, but only slightly sweet. It looked and tasted like water. Next, he chose some sap from a little further down the table. It was slightly brown and tasted sweet, but it was not syrup. Then, he dipped some from the other end of the table. It was steaming hot and I had to wait for it to cool before I could taste it. This was syrup, warm and fresh. It was the most wonderful thing I had ever tasted!
The man smiled. He told me to go outside and fill my cup with clean snow. When I brought it in, he poured some syrup over the top. This was good too, but I much preferred drinking my syrup straight. It was warm and comfortable in the little shack, and I could have fallen asleep listening to the sap boil on the table and smelling its sweet aroma. But eventually, I was forced back out into the snow. I was fortunate to grow up in New England, where a trip to the sugar house became an annual event.
Indiana Maple Syrup
Years later, I found myself living in Indiana. I never thought of Indiana as being a maple syrup producing state, so I was surprised to see that maple syrup festivals were a popular springtime event. I attended one of these events and learned that quite a bit of syrup is produced in Indiana. I was excited to hear this! At the time, we had 11 old maple trees all around our house. They were close, which would make collecting sap easy. I got to work. There were a lot of decisions to be made.
How to Collect the Sap
I settled on the old method—metal buckets hanging on a tree. I have fond memories of walking with my grandmother in the woods in early spring. I would stop at every bucket and lift the little lid to see how much sap was in there. I liked the nostalgia, and I liked the idea of metal buckets and spiles as opposed to plastic. I found my buckets, lids, and spiles used on eBay. Another important purchase was the spile driver, used to tap the spile into the tree. It keeps the spile from bending out of shape when hit with a hammer.
How to Collect and Store the Sap
My husband found used, food-grade, four-gallon plastic buckets at a local jelly factory. He purchased 10 of them for one dollar apiece. They came with tight-fitting lids. When our metal buckets filled up, we would empty them into the plastic buckets for storage until we could boil down the sap. We used a garden cart to pull the buckets around and collect sap from our trees. Pouring the sap through a metal strainer helped remove any tree bark or bugs that had collected in the metal buckets.
How to Boil Down the Sap
It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. That is a lot of water to boil off! We visited a friend who had built his own outdoor evaporator, and borrowing from his plan, we made our own.
When the sap would run fast, we could use the outdoor evaporator to keep up. But at times when it would run slow, we could boil it off in the house in a large pot on the wood stove. This method would add humidity to the air and give the house a warm sweet smell. We didn’t have wallpaper, so no need to worry about it peeling from the humidity (we had heard horror stories).
Step 1: Collect the Sap
With our plan in place, we waited for our first run. Warm days and cold nights are needed for sap to run, and sunny weather is usually better than cloudy. We knew approximately when the big farms tapped their trees and we asked friends who tapped their own trees when we should start. Once we had the all-clear, we used a 7/16” drill bit, at a slight angle, to make holes in our trees for the spiles. We tapped the spiles in carefully with a spile driver. Then we hung the buckets and attached the lids. Now, I got to watch my own children stand on tiptoes to check the buckets. It was exciting when they started to drip and fill up.
Step 2: Boil Down the Sap
Once we had collected enough sap, we fired up the outdoor evaporator. We half-filled our catering pans with sap and kept it moving from one pan to another as it boiled down. A quart-sized ladle works well for this. When we felt it was getting close, we brought it inside where we could control the heat and keep a closer eye on it. Sap will start to foam when it is at the right temperature to be syrup. We checked it with a thermometer as well. Then we poured the syrup into jars and sealed them tight. We ran them through a water bath canner for long term storage.
Changing Weather and the Timing of the Runs
We have been making syrup for several years now. Usually, we can get enough to last (almost) all year. It is a very sad day when the syrup runs out. In recent years, the weather has been erratic and it has been hard to know when to tap the trees. Normally, the best run is at the end of February to the beginning of March. But over the last couple of years, it has started to run in January! When that happens, we usually get a second run at the right time, but it is not as bountiful. January runs catch me off guard, as I am not ready to think about syrup yet. But I am wising up to it.
Have you ever made maple syrup?
While it is not quite the same as that quaint weathered shack from my childhood, I enjoy the process of turning sap into syrup. I long for those days when my house is filled with the warm, sweet humidity that comes from a pot of sap boiling on the wood stove. I am glad that my children have grown up lifting the lids and tasting the sap at different stages along the path to becoming syrup. Perhaps the nostalgia will live on in them.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Amanda Buck