So you’ve tapped some maple trees (if you haven’t, go learn how to tap trees here) and have loads of maple syrup potential sitting out in the backyard. However, it’s currently in the form of sap. Although it looks this was all a big hoax and it was just water coming out of those trees, there is definitely some sugar in there. It’s our job to get rid of all of that water in the sap that is diluting the maple sugar flavor. How do we do that? Well, my friend, this what the process of backyard sugarin’ is all about (coincidentally, or maybe not, Backyard Sugarin’ is a good book to learn all about this Maple Syrup thing).
Sap typically is around 2.5% sugar. Finished maple syrup is a minimum of 66.9% sugar content. Therefore, at a 2.5% sugar content level, it takes around 35-40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. If boiling off 35 gallons of water just to make 1 gallon syrup sounds like a lot, it is! But that 1 gallon of syrup is mighty good and well worth the boiling process. If you do it like me, it actually doesn’t take up much extra time. It’s kind of like baking a turkey. You just keep an eye on it, tend to it every now and then, and after a few hours you have a tasty treat.
There are many ways to boil off all of the water from the sap. Of course, the kitchen stove is always an option. But let’s be honest. First of all, this isn’t nearly as cool and “old timey” as maple syrup making should be. Also, putting gallons upon gallons of water vapor into your house probably isn’t the best idea. If you’re going to use the kitchen, you better have a powerful ventilation hood to get rid of all of the steam. If the kitchen stove isn’t the answer, then what is? The backyard of course! Among the many different backyard methods, I’ll show you which one I chose. It turns out to be really cheap using easy to acquire materials. It ‘s also really efficient with fuel (wood).
Choosing your pan
The more boiling surface area you have, the faster the job will go. The rate at which you get rid of the water is directly related to the surface area of the pans. So, a pan that is twice as big will make syrup twice as fast. Moral of the story? Choose a big pan. But what type of pan? It would be nice to have a huge steel pan like the serious hobbyists use. But, they are expensive. Instead, I went to Walmart and grabbed one of the aluminum turkey roasting pans. It’s cheap, fairly big, and you can just throw it away when you are done with it. It gets really dirty from all of the smoke.
Building the Evaporator
To boil off the syrup, I made an outdoor stove/oven made out of concrete blocks. I happened to have a few spare concrete blocks sitting around and put them to good use. What? Keeping around random concrete blocks makes me a redneck? Yes, it may look like it’s redneck. But hey, they were free from a guy down the street! Ok, yes this just might be a redneck tendency. Maybe I’ll just stack them real neat and then it becomes non-redneck…?
Anyhow, this is where you’ll boil off most of the water until you finish it off in the kitchen where you have more control.
There are a couple of important points here on designing/building the stove.
- You’ll be burning wood for a long time to boil off all of the sap. Therefore, you want to be as efficient with the wood as possible. The design of this stove is very efficient with wood. The block insulates the heat creating an “oven-like” environment.
- Putting in the chimney helps to send the smoke above the sap. Smoky sap might taste a little off so it’s best to keep it away from the sap as much as you can.
- Fire needs air to burn. The bottom blocks are turned to let air in to the fire. You can always regulate the air flow by putting another block to cover up the holes.
- The edges of the pan are supported by the concrete blocks in the opening. Therefore, build the opening to match the size of your pan.
- There will be a lot of smoke trying to get out of every little crack possible. If you want, you can seal up those cracks with some mud (like below picture). Or, if you want to be real fancy, some mortar. But, for me, this is only a temporary structure.
Boiling, boiling, and more boiling
After you build the evaporator/stove, it’s time to start the boiling process. The whole goal here is to remove those 35 gallons of water from the sap. And the only way this happens is over time. The exact time depends on how much sap you have, the sugar content of the sap, and the size of your pan. But, it’s a long time. To make 3 pints of syrup, it took me over 8 hours.
The good thing about it is that you can ignore it most of the time. Fill up the pan initially and then periodically add more sap. You want to make sure that the sap is always covering the entire bottom of the pan. Other than that, you can just let it do its thing until all of the sap is out of your buckets and into the pan.
Eventually, the sap will start to turn from clear to a light amber tone. This is when you know that the sugar is getting more concentrated and closer to syrup. Once you have all of the sap out of the buckets and into the pan, you’re almost ready to take it to the kitchen where you’ll finish it off.
Finishing off the Syrup in the Kitchen
The backyard is good for doing most of the legwork. But when you get close to the end of the syrup, you just don’t have enough control. You have to monitor the syrup closely and be ready to turn off the heat as soon as the syrup is complete. This precision is best done on the kitchen stove.
The process that I find works pretty well is pictured above. I put all of the syrup from the outside boiler into a big pan and bring it inside. When outside, there are all kinds of debris that could be in the sap. Bugs, falling sticks, leaves, etc. Unless you like a little extra twang in your syrup, you’ll want to filter the sap. The bottom pan contains all of the filtered sap which will eventually be the finished syrup. As the bottom pan boils down, simply put a paper towel lined colander over the pan and put some more sap in. Eventually, the big pan will be empty and all of the syrup will be in the bottom pan.
Once you have all of the syrup into one pan, you’re on the homestretch. As the syrup gets closer to being finished, it will really start to darken in color. Towards the very end, it will start to boil differently. Do you remember when you were a kid and you blew bubbles into your chocolate milk? Well maple syrup boils the same way. When the syrup starts to boil with little bubbles like blowing bubbles in your milk, it is really close to done. The final test is to take the temperature of the syrup. Due to the increased sugar content, maple syrup boils at 7 degrees higher than the boiling point of water. To test this, boil a pan of water right next to your syrup and take it’s temperature. Add 7 degrees and that is your target temperature for your maple syrup.
Bottling the syrup
The last step is to bottle the maple syrup. Unfortunately, when boiling maple syrup, something called sugar sand develops. It isn’t bad for you, but it does taste bitter. If you want to get rid of this, you will need to filter the syrup as you put it into the bottles. If you don’t filter, the sand will settle to the bottom of the bottles and won’t affect most of the syrup. But when you get to the bottom of the bottle, you probably won’t want to pour that sugar sand onto your pancakes!
You can put the syrup into any bottles as long as they seal well. Some people put them into old coffee cans, others use mason jars. I just got fancy and actually used maple syrup bottles. When bottling, make sure to bottle while the syrup is still hot. Any bacteria will be killed by the heat and the bottles will then store on the cupboard shelf for about a year.
That’s all there is to making maple syrup. It looks like a lot of work, but pure maple syrup is far better than the fake kind that you buy in the store. Also, just like everything else homemade, it always tastes better when you make it yourself. There is just something about “homemade” that make you appreciate it so much more. Am I now a maple syrup snob? Well, yea, I guess I kind of am. But dang, it’s just so good!