Today we’re going to learn about making maple syrup! But first, I must regale you with a story (far be it for me to get to the point quickly… ):
One of the reasons my husband and I chose to move to a 66 acre homestead in Vermont three years ago is that we knew nothing about homesteading. Yep. We both felt conversant in city life–to the point of boredom–and wanted a new challenge. I remember when I first moved to New York City in 2007, I was overwhelmed by the subway system to the point of sweaty palms and furtive studying of the stop map posted above the train doors.
But I mastered the subway and all other artifices of urban life. So I needed a new adventure! I needed to throw myself into another lifestyle that I knew nothing about. There were quite a few other reasons for this move, but learning new things is a primary and lifelong motivator for me and my main man (ok, only man).
One of the things that Mr. Frugalwoods and I always, without fail, held up as a shining example of “what we’d do on the homestead” was making our own maple syrup. It’s a classic, idyllic-seeming Vermont endeavor and we aspired so hard to become sugarers (as they’re known). And now, at long last, that dream will become reality (unless, of course, we screw it up, which remains a distinct possiblity).
Books and the internet are our first portals of skill acquisition and we’ve both spent hours poring over accounts of how to syrup as well as devouring wistful remembrances of other people’s childhoods spent in the company of sugaring parents. Ever nostalgists, we even have the Sugar Snow Little House On The Prairie book, which we read to our girls as often as they’ll stand it. But book learning will only get you so far (this is an affiliate link). We needed some in-person expertise.
The Vermont Evaporator Company To The Rescue!!!
In light of how little we know about maple syruping, and in light of how much I love meeting new people and making new friends, we struck up a friendship with Kate, who is the co-founder (along with her husband) and CEO of a local Vermont company that makes maple syrup evaporators! I am a fan of local businesses. I am a fan of women-led businesses. I am a fan of maple syrup.
And so, I am thrilled to share that Kate’s company, the Vermont Evaporator Company, is now the official maple syrup evaporator of Frugalwoods. I know you’ve been sitting there just wondering who the official maple syrup evaporator of Frugalwoods would be and I’m glad I can finally allay your curiosity. I’m delighted that someone thought we were serious enough homesteaders to create a homestead-type-thing partnership with us. Or perhaps Kate is taking pity on our ineptitude… either way, we’re going to make us some maple syrup!
What is a maple syrup evaporator?
I’m so glad you asked as I’ve recently come into this knowledge myself. It’s a device that allows you to boil down maple tree sap into maple syrup (photos featured above and below). Maple syrup is condensed tree sap and essentially all you have to do is boil sap down (waaaaaaay down) and lo, it becomes syrup. Kate brought us a Sapling Evaporator, which is what we’ll be using to boil down our sap this spring. In the interest of full disclosure, Kate gave us this evaporator for free in exchange for me writing about using it. However, we’re under no obligation to say only rosy, good things about it, so I’ll be giving you an honest review of our experience with the Sapling.
Sidenote: in addition to using the Sapling to boil down syrup, Kate has designed them so that you can convert them into smokers and grills for all your smoking and grilling food prep needs. Hence, it’s a three-for-one machine!
Without using an evaporator, there are less ideal ways to boil sap and I’ll enumerate some of them here:
- Boiling sap down indoors on your stovetop is a bad, bad idea because the steam coming off of the sap is SUPER sticky and will make your house sticky. I haven’t personally tried this, because I already have ample problems of an indoor nature (namely, my two adorable, tiny, disastrously messy children)
- Outdoors, you could rig up some sort of propane-fired boiler (such as a turkey fryer), but this is suboptimal because propane is expensive and apparently it takes forever to boil the sap down.
- Finally, outdoors you could fashion a boiler over an open fire using hotel pans balanced on cinder blocks or similar. There are several problems with this: 1) you’re balancing fiery hot liquid atop cinder blocks, which aren’t designed to accommodate those temperatures; 2) hotel pans aren’t great for boiling sap because you have to transfer it as it boils down, which can create a mega mess; 3) we’ve been told this is a frustrating approach that doesn’t work well. However, that’s not to say that plenty of people don’t manage it year after year!
In light of all this, we’re delighted that we’ll be syruping with a genuine maple syrup evaporator! Before Kate got in touch with us, Mr. FW and I’d been researching evaporators and the problem we kept bumping up against was twofold: 1) we couldn’t find any small evaporators on the used market; 2) most of the new evaporators we found were HUGE and super expensive. Enter the Vermont Evaporator Company, which fills our need perfectly. Their evaporators are designed specifically for small-scale syrupers (that’s what we want to be!).
Plenty of Vermonters have massive sugaring operations and they sell their sweet, sweet syrup for mass consumption, which is awesome! For them, large-scale evaporators make sense. But for people like us, who don’t aspire to mass produce syrup and want to make just enough for household consumption (and a few holiday gifts!), Kate’s smaller evaporators are ideal.
Maple syrup season is in the spring (more on why in a moment), so Mr. FW and I haven’t actually made any syrup yet, but, under Kate’s expert tutelage we are preparing to make syrup. And if you too want to make syrup this year, you ought start preparing! Given this, today’s post will cover how to prepare to make maple syrup. In the springtime, I’ll regale you with tales of us actually making our syrup (or you know, burning a bunch of maple sap in our backyard). Either way, it’ll be exciting and will include lots of photos of us + fire.
How To Make Maple Syrup (A Beginner’s Guide Written By A Beginner)
Kate kindly came to our homestead (several times) in order to teach us how to go about the process of making maple syrup. For those of you interested in also making your own maple syrup, I was excited to learn that one can do so with very few sugar maple trees. Mr. FW and I are blessed with thousands of trees on our property (and a lot of them are sugar maples), but Kate explained that one can make syrup from tapping just a few sugar maple trees. So, people in the suburbs with a few sugar maples in your backyard? You could turn those trees into some tasty goodness.
Let’s start at the very beginning: maple syrup is made from the sap of sugar maple trees.
You can also, I’ve learned, make syrup from other types of trees. Sugar maples are by far the most common–and they produce the syrup you’re accustomed to buying at the store–but other tree saps can in fact generate a facsimile.
Kate told me that you can actually tap any maple tree for syrup–not just sugar maples!! She reports that it all (amazingly) tastes the same, but that there’s a different sap to syrup ratio to contend with. And in addition to maples, Kate explained that birch as well as black walnut can be tapped for syrup. Since we plan to use sugar maples, I won’t delve into the specifics on those trees, but I wanted you to know just how many syrup options you have out there in the world.
The really short version of how you make syrup is thus:
- Extract sap from a tree by putting a tap into said tree
- Boil this sap down into syrup using an evaporator
- Eat the syrup
Ok, that’s it folks. Go forth and tap. Hah! Thankfully, Kate expanded on this process for me and helped me create the below guide, which is what Mr. FW and I will follow this spring for our first tapping season.
Step 1: Identify Sugar Maple Trees
Don’t laugh, you guys! I told you this was a beginner’s guide. As Kate sagely pointed out, it’s really hard to identify trees once their leaves are off. Mr. FW can identify trees by their bark alone (and I’ve made some marked improvement), but in a lot of cases, a tree trunk just looks like a tree trunk.
In the leaves, however, we see the gradations of originality and the purest distillation of what makes each tree its own unique being. In other words, look at the leaves and mark which ones are sugar maples. At right, for your reference, is a useful picture of Kate holding a sugar maple leaf in her palm.
I hope you enjoyed that. Put a marking flag (we use these) around your sugar maples if you think you might forget which ones are which… something I will most definitely do (that’s an affiliate link).
Step 2: Decide How Much Syrup You Want To Make
The number of trees to tap is entirely dependent upon how much syrup you hope to end up with. If you only have one or two trees in your yard, then that’ll be your cap. But if you have an abundance of foliage on your land, you’ll want to calculate how much syrup you use in a year and thus how much syrup you want to make–because it’s a somewhat labor intensive process. Also I am lazy and don’t want to do more work than I have to.
Mr. FW and I calculated that we use approximately 6 gallons of maple syrup per year, which means we will need a total of 240 gallons of tree sap. As I mentioned, the sap is boiled down to create syrup and the ratio for sugar maples is 40:1, meaning that 40 gallons of raw sap boils down to 1 gallon of finished syrup (I told you there was a lot of boiling involved).
Next up, we need to know how much sap comes from a maple tree! This is not a precise science since each tree is its own individual entity and the amount of sap that flows depends very much on the year, the weather, which side of the tree a moose licked… basically, it varies, but a rough estimate to work from is 1/3 of a gallon of finished syrup per tree.
Ok so back to our goal of 6 gallons: At 1/3 of a gallon (of finished syrup) per tree, Mr. FW and I are planning to tap around 20 sugar maples this year. Kate said it’s more likely to get 1/2 a gallon per tree, but we’re anticipating that we’ll screw something up and lose/destroy some of our sap. So we’re estimating low in the hopes of ending up with that 6 gallon goal. Kate pointed out that there are many ways to lose sap: (1) overflowing buckets, (2) a windstorm that snaps a line, (3) having to dump a bucket because a baby squirrel fell in and died (happened to her once, she reports it was horrible), and of course (4) human error. Given my proclivity for #4, I think estimating low will be good for us.
In some cases, you can put more than one tap in a tree (if it’s a very large tree), but research has indicated that one tap per tree is likely to encourage the best longterm sap production from each tree. You can’t tap the same spot on a tree multiple years in a row, so the tree needs to be growing fast enough to allow you to tap every year and not run out of new spots to tap. Summary: we’ll be putting in just one tap per tree.
Step 2, Subpoint A: maple syrup is for more than just pancakes!!!
Who doesn’t love a good subpoint? Whoa, Mrs. Frugalwoods, you might be thinking. Six gallons of syrup sounds like A LOT of pancakes!!! And it would be. Funny enough, we don’t actually use our syrup on pancakes (I mean we do about once a year, but not regularly).
So what on earth do we do with six gallons of syrup every year? We bathe in it. In an ancient Vermont ritual of cleansing, we fill a trough with maple syrup on the first harvest moon of the new season and dip our… totally kidding, I bake bread with it!
Using our bread machine (which I found for free on the side of the road, thank you very much), I bake all of our family’s bread. That sounds like I bake many different kinds of bread, which you could do if you were creative/motivated. I, however, being neither of those things, bake just one type of bread every week: whole wheat sandwich bread using this recipe. I adore baking my own bread because:
- it’s cheaper than buying bread
- it’s healthier than store-bought bread
- I know exactly what ingredients are in there
- it uses maple syrup in lieu of white sugar or high fructose corn syrup
- it’s delicious!
In ye olden days (that would be three years ago… ), I thought maple syrup was merely a pancake topping. A frivolity. A yummy, but wholly unnecessary, pantry denizen. Moving to Vermont has opened my sheltered mind to the multitudinous uses of the humble maple syrup.
My primary application is in my whole wheat bread recipe, but Kate shared that she also employs maple syrup in salad dressing, mustards, and even in chili! Yum. I will also point out that maple syrup, while still a sugar, does contain natural vitamins and minerals, seeing as it is from a tree. Plus, let’s be honest, it’s delicious on pancakes.
Step 3: Procure Yon Wood
I really talk about wood a lot. If it’s not our resident menace woodchuck (who I see skulking around the yard daily like the rotund football that he is), it’s Mr. FW building a woodshed, or harvesting wood from our land, or burning wood in our woodstove to heat our home. Or in this case, compiling wood to burn in our sap boil! As I mentioned above (about 500 times), maple syrup comes from boiling down maple tree sap. Hence, as you might’ve guessed, one needs a lot of wood in order to fuel the fire that’s going to boil down your maple tree sap.
Last month, I indulged you all in a riveting discussion of wood BTUs. I am fully aware that some of you read my stuff just praying that I’ll mention BTUs, and I will not disappoint all four of you today. As I outlined last month, the wood we burn in our woodstove (which heats our entire house) is high BTU hardwood. This is wood that burns slowly and efficiently, which is exactly what you want in a woodstove. Conversely, the wood you want for boiling down maple sap in an evaporator is–wait for it–SOFT WOOD, which has a low BTU. Your mind is blown, am I right? Soft wood burns more easily and more quickly, which is terrible for trying to heat a home, but fantastic for boiling down some good old tree sap.
Given this differential, we can’t use the same wood to boil down our syrup that we use to heat our home. Slight problem for us as Mr. FW spent months upon months with his chainsaw in the woods bringing down trees to warm our home. But maple syrup boiling wood? Not so much.
Lucky for us, Kate came to our rescue and kindly brought us a pallet of soft wood to burn in our sap boil. We also have a few languishing piles of soft wood from trees Mr. FW had to bring down for safety reason. Everyone who knows my husband, or who followed along with his woodshed building adventures on Instagram, can probably guess where I’m going with this…
We’re going to need another woodshed.
Well, maybe. If we decide to syrup every year in a serious way, we’ll need to conceive of some sort of segregated wood storage area for syrup wood since we don’t want to co-mingle it with our woodstove wood in our existing woodshed. But that’s another challenge for another year. For now, we’re doing the time-honored tradition of storing the wood on a pallet in our yard. Seems we’ll always have random pallets of wood in our yard…
Kate, an endless font of knowledge, explained that you need about 1/2 a cord of wood per five gallons of finished syrup (assuming, again, that you’re using sugar maple sap and that you’re using a Sapling evaporator). Less efficient methods of evaporating will require more wood. Wondering what a cord is? I have the answer right here (I told you I write about wood a lot).
An advantage of using soft wood is that it takes less time to dry and cure. Wood that’s harvested in the summer will be ready to burn for syruping season in the spring. More on drying and curing here! See? More about wood.
If you don’t happen to have ready firewood to harvest on your own land, fear not, you can source wood to burn from any of the following: lumber yard scraps, chipper services, lawn care companies, discarded pallet wood (ensure it hasn’t been chemically treated), and city parks. Kidding. Do not go chop down city trees and blame me. I’m already in trouble with cities everywhere for evangelizing country life…
Step 4: Procure Yon Supplies
Once you’re set with your two biggest supplies: sugar maple trees and wood to burn, there’s a slew of other items you need in order to effectively home sugar. In other news, “home sugar” is my new nickname.
First, you need spiles, which are what you tap a tree with in order to extract sap. A spile is a fairly small, traditionally metal gadget (they can be plastic) that you drill into the trunk of the tree(s) you want to tap. You’ll also need a drill with an appropriately-sized bit.
Next up, you need a way to collect the sap that comes out of the spile that’s drilled into your tree trunk. There are two options here: buckets or lines. Mr. FW and I are still undecided about which approach we’ll use. Buckets are what you see in ye olde maple syrup photos–it’s literally a bucket hanging off the tree below the spile. The downside of the photogenic buckets is that you have to manually collect each bucket. Lines are admittedly less Instagram-worthy as they’re plastic tubes that run from tree to tree. But the great advantage of lines is that they can be gravity fed, which means the sap simply flows on down the lines, collecting from each tree and pouring into your…
Sap storage tank! Like it sounds, this is a place to store your tree sap before you boil it into syrup. Kate recommends food-safe buckets or cubes. She reports that the sap needs to be kept cool or frozen and that it’s not a problem if it freezes. In light of this, I tentatively think we’ll plan to store the sap in our barn in some sort of yet-to-be-purchased food-safe container. In order to get the sap out of this tank, you’ll need a…
Spigot! Kate reports that, depending on your weather conditions (and how cold you can keep your sap), the raw sap should stay good for about 1 to 1.5 weeks before needing to be boiled into syrup.
Filters: with which to filter your finished syrup, particularly if you plan to sell it. As part of the boiling process, some of the minerals crystallize and create what’s called “sugar sand,” which settles to the bottom of the jar. If you want, you can filter this out. Or, you can just not pour out the bottom of the jar. However, the more crucial reason to use filters are to remove–there’s no gentle way to say this–bugs (it’s a natural process, people).
Thermometer: this is useful because you know maple syrup is done based on its temperature. A seasoned maple syrup maker can just look at it and know, but for us amateurs, we need to utilize some science in order to know when our boil is finished (lest we burn the whole batch).
Once the sap reaches 219 degrees Fahrenheit, it has completed its alchemy into syrup. Technically, the temperature is 7 and 1/4 degrees Fahrenheit above the boiling point of water, and water boils at different temperatures based on your elevation, so you can perform this calculation based on your specific location.
I’ve saved the best for last. In order to make maple syrup, you need an evaporator!! As previously discussed, an evaporator allows you to boil down tree sap for the requisite amount of time to transmute it into maple syrup.
I’ll write another post this spring detailing our syruping adventure with a full rundown on how the evaporator works. For now, it’s looking mighty fine hanging out in our barn.
- Sugar maple trees
- Wood to burn
- Drill with appropriately-sized bit
- Buckets or lines
- Sap storage
- Spigot in sap storage
- Containers to hold your finished syrup
Step 4: Read up and Research
It’s now wintertime (in your supposed syrup preparation world) and so you’ve curled up next to your woodstove with plans to doze and perhaps catch up on the latest issue of Cat Fancy. This is false if you plan to syrup!!
You, future syrup maker, are imbibing the fire hose of syrup-making information available. You are reading Kate’s Vermont Evaporator blog from start to finish (something I need to do… ) and also a bunch of other stuff about syruping. Here are some suggestions:
- Maple Trader Forum (you will be unsurprised to hear that, yes, there is a forum devoted exclusively to maple syruping)
- The Maple Sugar Book; by: Helen and Scott Nearing (more of a historical perspective than a how to)–affiliate link
- Sugar Snow: Little House On The Prairie; by: Laura Ingalls Wilder (for the kids!)–affiliate link
Now You’re Ready for Syrup Season!
Wait, when is syrup season again????!!!!!
More specifically, syruping season is slightly different every year as it’s entirely temperature dependent. According to the Vermont Maple Syrup Makers (whose annual conference Mr. FW attended): “A pattern of freezing and thawing temperatures (below freezing at night and 40-45 degrees during the day) will build up pressure within the trees causing the sap to flow from the tapholes.”
Since this type of weather–below freezing at night, above freezing during the day–happens at different times each year, it’s impossible to predict exactly when we’ll be syruping. And, it’s also possible to have several “runs” in a season, meaning the sap might flow during a particularly warm week in February and then stop for awhile as temperatures dip down and then might flow again in March. One must be ever vigilant to the weather when one is syruping (good thing we have a weather nerd in residence who installed a weather station on our property. I’ll give you one guess as to who that was… ).
In the spring, I’ll give you a rundown of steps 5-10 in the syruping process (oh who am I kidding, knowing me, there’ll probably be 20 more steps… ):
- Step 5: Start Tapping Your Trees!
- Step 6: Collect and Store The Sap
- Step 7: Boil The Sap In An Evaporator
- Step 8: Filter The Syrup
- Step 9: Can The Syrup
- Step 10: Eat The Syrup
Until then, happy preparations and I’ll see you when the sap flows!
Kate, CEO of the Vermont Evaporator Company, and I will BOTH be answering questions on this post, so please feel free to ask all your syruping-related questions in the comments section! I’ll give hilarious commentary and Kate will provide actual useful information.