Good morning! I’m so happy this morning! I could skip around the yard!
Of course, then, the neighbors would think the contraption in our backyard is a still- but it’s not.
The pile of cement blocks and grates in our backyard is for boiling sap and making maple syrup! Since it is still too early to camp, playing with the fire all day making maple syrup is the next best thing!
We have 2 large maple trees in our yard and I always thought it would be fun to try making maple syrup. I have a small tendency to self-sufficiency; it encourages frugality and it is fun to try new things. A few years ago the local DNR had an afternoon class about tapping trees, but we missed it. Since it was a local class, I figured it must be at least possible to tap trees around here. Then last year, I thought ‘I’m not getting any younger, let’s just try it.’
In February, we researched online all about making maple syrup. Thankfully, there is a lot of information and many videos!
The husband even agreed to drill into our maple trees. It was amazing- sap started to flow right away! It was coming out even before he took the drill bit out!
Somehow, we had stumbled onto the perfect time and weather to tap in our area. During 2-3 weeks, we ended up with 44 ½ gallons of sap that boiled down to make 10 ½ pints of syrup. Now, I know that sounds like a lot of condensing down. It was. But it was also fun playing with the fire pit as the sap boiled down. And fun smelling the steam as it got sweeter and maple-y the more it condensed. It was even fun watching it drip from the spoon, as I wondered if it was done. Of course, it was more precise to watch the candy thermometer.
This year is only our second year tapping the trees and the weather and temperature have been fluctuating, so we were unsure of when to tap.
Last year, we made syrup the very end of February and part of March. This year, we have had some gorgeous days in January.
The online forums said it was way too early to tap, so I finally called the state extension service. They are sooo helpful and nice. I have called them before with canning questions and received recipes. I’m glad I called about tapping the trees. The tree expert at the extension service said “Tap,Tap,Tap! “
The old rule they followed was to not tap before Valentine’s Day, but with the weather, they had tapped some and gotten nice sap in January! He said watching the weather temperature is the most important part of deciding when to tap, to look for below freezing at night and warmer temps during the day. I was concerned about a cold, cold spell coming again, but he said that the trees get a nice rest during the cold days, before the temperature rises and the sap starts flowing again. I was so excited that I couldn’t wait to get off the phone and find the drill for the husband!
We do try to be frugal about our supplies. There are beautiful galvanized buckets and metal splines for sale, but our free frosting buckets from the local grocery stores work just as well. We also use $5 food grade tubing and $1.50 3/8 inch nylon hose barb to tap the trees. Rinsed out milk jugs are great for storing sap until we can boil, sometimes they don’t leave enough room in the refrigerator for the milk though! Last weekend, we had 13 gallons of sap and only 2 gallons of milk-not near enough for the guys.
We are still adjusting the frugal fire pit. Cement blocks are under $1, so we will continue to use them, even though they will only last 2-3 years. We purchased new thicker re-bar to hold up the grate for the pots. Last year, the thinner re-bar was fine but this year it started to warp. We have put a grate under the fire to encourage air flow and heat, and it did reduce our cook time but started to warp the grate and the re-bar.
Boiling down the sap can take a while. We use 2 large stockpots and some people use rectangle restaurant steamer pans. The very first time we got sap, I tried boiling down just one saucepan of sap. I was too excited to wait for more, but it wasn’t a good idea. I only got one spoon of syrup. It was too small of an amount to use the thermometer and I scorched it. But it was syrup and from our own trees!
Now, we try to boil on the weekends when we can do it together in larger amounts. The husband visits with me way better than the squirrels do when I boil alone during the week. It is nice to have company (and someone to haul the logs). Sometimes we have 7 gallons, sometimes 18! Last weekend we boiled 17 gallons on Saturday and thought we would be done for a few days-but Sunday produced another 12 gallons of sap! At least we were able to boil it all down on Sunday afternoon, before it got dark outside.
When the sap gets darker and reduced to 1 ½ gallons or less, we take it inside to finish it. We can control the temperature better on the stove, so we don’t scorch the syrup. It’s also easier to stir and watch the thermometer inside, unless the grandbaby is visiting. Then, I might shut the kitchen door, play blocks with the grandbaby and end up scooping 1 ½ pints of boiled over, unusable syrup off the stove top. Oh well, at least there was still 1 ½ pints of good syrup left. I will now set a timer if the grandbaby visits on syrup-ing days.
We don’t can the syrup because I’m a nervous canner. I always follow the Ball Blue canning book or extension service recipes and haven’t tried a pressure canner yet, so I worried about canning syrup. The internet and syrup forums have lots of advice if you wish to can syrup.
Since we only have 2 trees, our syrup fits nicely in the deep freeze until we want to use it. Doing it this way, I don’t have to worry about it getting to the exact temperature, 6-7 degrees above the boiling point of water. I’m pretty sure I get the temperature high enough though, half the time I have a few sugar crystals in the jars! Of course, the sugar crystals taste good too!
A cotton dishtowel is our perfect frugal filter for the syrup. We tried coffee filters, but they plugged too fast. We filter it twice, once after reducing on the fire, before the almost syrup comes into the house; this gets out any stray ash from the fire.
Then, we filter it again when it reaches the syrup point. This removes the sugar sand (niter) before cooling and storing it. The sugar sand is gritty sediment that forms from the trace minerals when the sap is condensed. It stays in the cotton dishtowel while the syrup goes though, so we just rinse the sand down the sink when we’re done filtering.
A co-worker honeymooned recently in New England. They toured a maple syrup farm, where the owners showed them all the lines coming from the trees, the sugar shack and process to make maple syrup. They also learned how syrup can be different colors and tastes throughout a single season.
I really understand that now. I wouldn’t have thought that it could change so much in 5-8 weeks, but it does. I love seeing the different colors of syrup in the jars almost as much as I enjoy smelling the maple-y steam or watching the drips from the spoon progress from sap to syrup. Of course, it’s also great fun eating pancakes covered with your own maple syrup!
If you have ever wanted to make your own maple syrup-I would definitely recommend trying it. You don’t even need a maple tree to make syrup; I’ve read there are other trees, like black walnut and birch that you could also use. The sap to syrup ratio and of course taste would be different, so definitely research it online.
Making syrup can be frugal and great fun! It is fun playing with the fire, learning and adjusting the syrup methods and sharing our maple syrup adventures with others. I think we will be making syrup every spring for a long time.
Update– If you’re interested in a more in depth maple syrup ‘how to’, check out my Backyard Maple Syrup for Beginners!
Happy Camping! (or tree tapping!)
The Frugal Campasaurus