The air smelled like maple syrup. Every time I stepped out of the house, or got out of the car, or returned from a hike in the woods, I smelled it. It doesn’t smell like when you hover your nose over a plastic jug of grocery store syrup.
It’s not saccharine and plasticized. It doesn’t even smell like the “real Vermont maple syrup” we used to buy at farm stands while driving back home to Boston. It smells smoky, earthy, and only kind of sweet. This is what our homestead smelled like last month. It’s a smell that I can’t forget because it’s unlike anything I’ve ever smelled, but at the same time, it’s a reassuring, nostalgic smell.
Last month, we made maple syrup. Last month, we solidified a piece of our identity we didn’t even know was missing. There are few things more gratifying than making food from our land. Doing so satisfies an instinctual desire to provide for ourselves and to develop a symbiotic relationship with nature.
We’ve only lived here for three years and so we’re still very much in the infancy of our homesteading capabilities and making maple syrup was a goal we had on a pedestal.
Why Maple Syrup? And Why This Year?
There’s no good reason, no one reason, why we started sugaring this year. We didn’t have more time or more knowledge. We just wanted to and so, we did.
So many of our “farming” efforts follow that path. If we waited until we had expanses of free time (or even just time, full stop) or until we’d read EVERY book and internet article on homesteading, we’d never do anything. Mr. Frugalwoods and I have the freedom to fail at homesteading, which is probably why we’re so comfortable doing it.
Since we both work from home (on the ol’ internet) and are financially independent, we have the freedom to not need to earn money from homesteading.
Good thing since we do quite the reverse. We’re also not trying to impress anyone, prove ourselves, or look glamorous while doing it (although, I mean, check out Mr. FW’s sweet snowpant overalls… ).
Those facts remove the pressure and anxiety that used to prevent me from getting started. This whole idea of just waking up and doing stuff dawned on me soon after moving here.
I realized that, in my past urban-office-worker life, I rarely did things I didn’t already know how to do.
There wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity for me to try new stuff or fail or learn because my life was straightforward and prescribed. Plus, I didn’t have any kids yet… if you want to start failing at stuff ASAP, have kids! But I digress.
I love to tell you about our homesteading adventures because they are so imprecise and haphazard. I love that I get to do things I’ve never done before and that I usually don’t know how to do until I do them. I didn’t know how maple syrup was made until we started making it.
So this post isn’t a how-to because I am not qualified to write a how-to. This post isn’t entirely gaffe-filled either, because we did succeed in making some syrup (amid, admittedly, many gaffes). This post is a relaying of how we did something new. How we felt. How it smelled. Why we’re here.
Brief Interlude On How To Make Maple Syrup
If you too would like to make syrup, and/or wish to see lots of photos of sugar maple trees, I have two previous posts detailing the prep work and the process of tapping our maple trees and collecting the maple sap:
Our Vermont Evaporator Company Evaporator
We are the proud owners of a Sapling Evaporator gifted to us by Kate, the co-founder (along with her husband) of the Vermont Evaporator Company. Try not to be too shocked that someone thought I was “homesteady” enough to gift an evaporator to. Yep, that’s me, homestead Liz (all my friends who are actual farmers think this is pretty hilarious. Thanks, guys).
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 good things about it, so I’ll give you an honest review of our experience with the Sapling (TLDR: it’s awesome! Highly recommend!).
So what’s an evaporator? It’s a barrel that burns wood in an enclosed chamber to heat sap (which you pour into pans on top) in order to boil the sap down into syrup. See photo at right! In addition to using the Sapling to boil down syrup, it’s designed to convert into smokers and grills for all your smoking and grilling food prep needs. Hence, it’s a three-for-one machine! We haven’t tested out the smoking and grilling mechanism yet, but we should.
You can boil sap down without an evaporator, but it’s a lot easier to do so with an evaporator. Of course, I’ve never tried to make syrup without an evaporator, so what do I know?! This size of evaporator is ideal for the “backyard sugarer,” which I learned is what we are, in technical terms. A commercial sugarer taps many hundreds or thousands of trees and makes many hundreds or thousands of gallons of syrup, which they sell to hundreds or hopefully thousands of people. We, the backyard sugarers, make enough for our own household consumption and try not to set ourselves on fire in the process.
Since this was our first year making syrup, I won’t even PRETEND to be qualified to teach you how to make it. If you want to know, read an expert’s account. Lucky for us, Kate (co-founder of the Vermont Evaporator Company) has many excellent write-ups on the topic. Hooray!
If you want to understand the basics so as to better enjoy this post-by-a-neophyte, here’s how you make maple syrup:
- Tap sugar maple trees
- Collect the tree sap
- Boil the tree sap on an evaporator until it becomes maple syrup
- Can the syrup in glass canning jars to make it shelf stable
- Eat the syrup
There are roughly 8,639 other steps interspersed in there, so make sure to consult a professional before embarking on your own backyard sugaring adventure.
Here’s the equipment we used in this stage of the sugaring process:
- Digital kitchen thermometer
- Large cooking pot
- Propane-fired turkey fryer
- Glass canning jars
13 Things We Learned During Our First Season of Maple Sugaring
1) If you have a decent slope on your land, tubing is an amazing labor saver.
We used tubes to collect our maple sap, as opposed to buckets, which worked out even better than we expected. The sap flowed down the tubes into our 275 gallon collection tank, where it politely waited for us to get around to boiling it.
We let the sap sit there for as long as 14 days with nary a repercussion (the storage tank was buried in snow at the time). We didn’t have time to boil every day and it’s also not efficient to do so. We wanted to wait until our storage tank had enough sap to keep the evaporator burning all day long.
There’s a 100% chance we would’ve failed to make a drop of syrup if we’d had to collect buckets from trees every day. As with most things, knowing thyself is the most important first step. And I know that myself doesn’t have the time to collect buckets. Myself also does not want to collect buckets with a toddler in tow and a baby on my back. No thanks, says myself.
2) Don’t put your taps and tubes up in the deep snow.
In our naïveté, coupled with our lack of time, we didn’t get our taps and tubes in before the first snowfall. To be fair, the first snowfall was in early November, so we didn’t have much of a chance. To also be fair, I’ve been using that early snowfall as the excuse for everything we didn’t get done last fall: cleaning up the garden, splitting more firewood, starting a new exercise regime, vacuuming the basement… really it all goes back to that early snow.
This is how we found ourselves in snowshoes, trying to summit respectably-sized snow hills in order to tap and tube the trees. Not easy, but doable. What we didn’t take into account was how much farther the taps would be from the ground once the snow melted… Yep.
Mr. FW predicted this situation and intentionally knelt down to tap the trees. It looked like he was tapping them super low, but since we were atop 45 feet of snow, when that snow melted, those taps were suddenly WAY up high on those tree trunks.
Mr. Frugalwoods (who is 6’2″) had to get up on tippy toes–and very nearly needed to use a ladder–in order to take the taps out of the trees at the end of the season.
3) You need more firewood for the evaporator than you think. Waaaaaaaay more.
However much firewood you think you need, go ahead and double it. Maybe triple it. Wood is used to fire the evaporator (it is, after all, a wood-burning evaporator) and we ran out of wood LONG before we ran out of maple sap. If we’ve had enough firewood on hand, we could’ve made double the amount of syrup. Maybe triple.
As you know,
too much a great deal of my writing is devoted to wood: burning it for heat, harvesting it from our forest, the BTUs of aforementioned wood, the storage, toting, and maintenance of said wood, and of course, my woodworking husband, Mr. Frugalwoods. In light of my excessive narratives on wood, please avail yourself of any (or all) of the below posts for more on how we burn wood to heat our home and the need for wood to fire an evaporator.
- Ok never mind, it looks like I talk about wood in every single post in this series, so I’ll stop trying to link to them individually..
Now please allow me to quote myself from this post:
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.
Based on this, and the fact that its for next winter’s heating, we didn’t want to use our house wood for our maple syrup evaporator. And we woefully underestimated how much wood we’d need for the syrup. To give you a sense of just how much wood we needed for the evaporator, we burned through 3/4 to one cord of wood to make 3.5 gallons of syrup. For reference, we burn THREE CORDS TOTAL to heat our entire home for the ENTIRE WINTER (which lasts 11.5 months here in Vermont). Wondering what a cord of wood is? Fear not, I have a post about it. This is such a great illustration of the power of an efficient woodstove and the importance of knowing your wood BTUs (don’t worry guys, I have a post on BTUs).
We’re going to aim to have three cords of wood put up for next year’s sugaring season. Pending another early snowfall, which I will 100% blame. Again.
4) Cutting down tress for firewood WHILE sugaring does work, but is not recommended for ease of operations or sanity.
Nope, not done talking about wood. Realizing that the weak link in our sugaring operation was our shortage of firewood, Mr. FW set about felling, bucking, skidding, and splitting standing dead pine trees (soft wood) after we’d started collecting sap.
This is not a good idea; don’t do this. I mean, it works, but it’s difficult to split wood to order. It’s really something you want to do ahead of time.
Fortunately (or not actually fortunately, but only in this instance), we have quite a few standing dead white pines, which meant the wood was already mostly dried out and ready to be burned (not a good idea to burn fresh, green wood).
5) When they tell you to split the firewood for the evaporator really thin, they are not kidding.
You should know by now that anything I write about the homestead will contain AT MINIMUM three discrete points dedicated to wood. Mr. FW initially split the wood to roughly the size of his forearm.
Turns out, the wood needs to be split to the size of one’s wrist. The thinner the wood, the faster the fire recovers after you add additional wood.
Thinly split wood helps keep the boil. And keeping the boil helps the sap boil down into syrup faster.
6) The great thing about thinly split wood is that…
It doesn’t weigh very much and so, a stubborn three-year-old can help tote wood for the fire.
Not like, very effectively or anything, but she was hauling that wood around, and around, and around…
7) There’s a role for the flame weeder.
The first morning of running the evaporator, Mr. FW started the fire from kindling. As you know if you’ve ever built a fire, this takes a long time.
Ever on the prowl for
opportunities to flame torch stuff efficiencies, he then started the fire with the flame weeder (affiliate link). Not only did this save circa 30 minutes of fire building time, it provided yet another justification for why we own and operate a glorified–and glorious–flame torch.
8) Making syrup takes a LONG time and a LOT of maple sap.
Like, a REALLY long time and a HUGE amount of sap. The ratio of raw maple sap to finished maple syrup is 40:1 on the low end and 60:1 on the high end. This means it takes at least 40 gallons (yes, FORTY) of sap to boil down to one single gallon (yes, ONE) of maple syrup. And now you understand why real maple syrup is so expensive.
All told, Mr. FW spent at least four full days (as in, 7am – 8pm) tending the evaporator and boiled at least 140 gallons of sap to yield 3.5 gallons of finished maple syrup. With such tremendous inputs for such abbreviated results, why do it? Because…
9) Boiling sap is a TON of fun.
This is as reported by Mr. Frugalwoods, who was the one out there running the evaporator alllllll day and alllllll evening. Here’s his direct quote:
The actual process of running the evaporator was VERY enjoyable. The first day of trying to figure it all out was hectic, but once I understood what was going on and had a feel for all of the variables, it was relaxing to sit outside listening to classical music, book in hand, with a timer set to remind me to add wood to the evaporator every seven minutes in order to maintain a rolling boil.
For maximum sap reduction, you’ve got to maintain a serious boil, not a tepid, piddly boil. A boil with a capital B. The kids and I popped outside sporadically to observe, but it is too long, too dangerous and too boring (from a toddler perspective) an activity for a baby and a toddler to remain immersed for a full day.
10) Finishing the syrup on propane totally worked.
Mr. FW couldn’t get the syrup to finish on the evaporator, which he says could’ve been either his lack of skill and/or his lack of time.
Two years ago, we bought a propane turkey fryer at a garage sale for some ridiculously low price on the not-so-ridiculous assumption that one day we’d need it to finish off maple syrup. That ridiculously cheap turkey fryer has been collecting a ridiculous amount of dust in our barn, just waiting for its moment. Turns out, its moment was now.
Mr. FW drained a day’s worth of boiled-down sap from the evaporator pans into the turkey fryer pot (which is like a large stew pot) and finished it on the propane burner for about 45 minutes. There are several different ways to know when your bucket of boiling sap has officially transmuted into syrup:
- By temperature: when the temperature of the sap hits seven degrees over the boiling point of water.
- By bubble formation: when the bubbles get tiny and numerous. This was impossible for us to determine the first time we did it, but in subsequent boils, the bubble formation was consistent with the temperature change.
- By how it sheets off a spoon: you are also supposed to be able to tell based upon how it sheets off of a spoon, but we never got it to do that.
11) A sap container is delightful for a toddler to perch on.
As I shared on Instagram, Kidwoods discovered she could perch on top of the 275 gallon maple sap storage tank and–best of all–that there’s an echo when you yell down through the opening.
After sticking her head in to investigate, she popped up and reported, “don’t worry, I won’t drop a shoe in there.” Oh good. Of all the things I thought she might do, dropping a shoe inside actually had not occurred to me. Most of my parenting fails are, indeed, failures of imagination.
The best, the very best of this moment, was sneaking up on Mr. FW and Kidwoods chuckling about sap storage echoes as the last of this season’s sap drained into the grass, remnants of the syrup we didn’t make (thanks to above point #3).
I had the baby on my back, we were about to head inside for baths, books, and bed. It was the golden hour: both kids were basking in post-dinner glee, both parents were finished with work for the day, and warm breezes were circulating through the gardens. There are moments of bliss and this was one of them. Ok back to real life…
12) Canning syrup is super simple and sweet.
After finishing the syrup outside over our garage sale turkey fryer, Mr. FW hauled the giant pot-o-syrup inside and we canned it with a hot canning method. Using our handy dandy food funnel, we poured syrup into quart-sized glass Mason jars, put on lids and rings, and turned the jars upside down, which makes them shelf stable (affiliate link). This was the one easy part of the entire process.
Pro tip: if you drip any syrup onto the kitchen floor, your toddler will scramble onto her belly and lick it up. Straight off the tile. Like a dog.
13) Our maple syrup tastes amazing.
Am I biased? Of course I’m freaking biased! I just outlined how my husband spent 6,789 hours making this stuff. IT IS NECTOR OF THE GODS. Hyperbole aside, it’s the best-tasting stuff ever.
We’re rationing our usage to make it last, which won’t be long if our kids keep asking for pancake parties, which is when we make homemade pancakes and eat them on our lawn…. and the baby rifles through the stack of pancakes and takes a tiny, five-toothed bite out of every one. Every single pancake. Baby teef marks.
To facilitate pouring the syrup from the Mason jars onto the pancakes, we bought this spout, which works surprisingly well as long as it is not operated by a toddler (affiliate link).
The Best Part Of Making Maple Syrup
Those thirteen points were super nice and good, but the actual best part of our sugaring days were the nights.
After the sun went down, after I’d put both children to bed, after I’d released (some of) the tension of the day, I’d grab a bottle of caramel vodka (do not laugh, it’s DELICIOUS) and a bottle of whiskey (despite its deliciousness, Mr. FW disdains my caramel vodka).
I put on my boots, my coat, my hat, my mittens, and crunched over the snow to the evaporator. I found my husband tending the evaporator fire, classical music playing over our little transistor radio, logs crackling, and the night otherwise silent. I nestled the bottles into a snow bank (plenty of those to choose from in a Vermont winter) and inhaled.
Mr. FW wrapped his arms around me, engulfing me in a cloud of woodsmoke, maple, and the vibrancy of a person who spent the entire day outside.
We looked up at the sky and gasped. Our night skies aren’t merely dark–they’re pitch black. There are no traffic lights or street lights in our town, or in any of the surrounding towns.
There are no city lights or skyscrapers or airports. Everything is silent and dark. The stars are in charge and there are more of them than seems reasonable.
With our necks stretched up, my head resting on Mr. FW’s chest, his head resting on the collar of his coat, we traced constellations with mittened hands. We swiveled around to see the other half of the sky, taking sips of our snow-chilled drinks. We listened to the maple sap boil down, distilling our reasons for living out here.