Good morning! I hope this finds everyone safe, healthy and keeping busy!
We were very busy in March- it was maple season! It was a short maple season though. A few warm nights, a few weeks in a row, helped our maple trees bud earlier than last year. Guessing what the season will be like is part of the fun of making our own maple syrup. We’ve had early springs and late springs- every year is different.
The last 2 years have been very different from our first few years of making maple syrup-instead of a concrete block cooker, I have a barrel cooker! I’m really enjoying the barrel cooker that the husband gave me as a Christmas present a few years ago. It seems much quicker to boil the sap down to make maple syrup. I’m not sure if the quicker processing is from the larger surface area on the rectangle steamer pans or the more efficient use of heat-either way, I love it!
The concrete block cookers are a great frugal alternative to using the barrel cooker. We were happy to use the concrete block cooker the first few years we made maple syrup. It kept the cost down, especially since we weren’t sure if we could make maple syrup or if we would enjoy it.
We did use a few of the old concrete blocks to raise up the stove and make it easier to see the fire.
While it is more expensive than the concrete block cooker, I don’t think it was too expensive- and it was a great Christmas present! New restaurant steamer pans and the cast iron door kit were probably under $100? The barrel was cheap ( under $30?), though we might need to replace the barrel someday, if it rusts out.
At the beginning of each maple season, the husband lines the bottom of the barrel cooker with sand and props thin concrete pavers on the sides. We are hoping this protects the sides of the barrel from the extreme heat, so it will last longer.
For most of the barrel cooker’s first season, we burned the wood on an old grill grate. Just like with the concrete block cooker, it burned better with the air underneath. It also warped the grate into a smile shape from the extreme heat! I wish I had taken a picture of it- it was sooo silly! Now, we just burn on the sand and the husband uses a shovel to clean out the ashes after every fire.
The rectangle steamer pans looked so clean the first time we used them, too bad they don’t look like that now.
As the sap boils and reduces, sugar burns onto the sides of the pan. They look so bad, but I’ve read that many people have this issue. I wash the pans after every boil, but only scrub them at the end of the season. Even then, it is next to impossible to get the scorch marks off the pans. I have read to try Bar Keeper’s Friend cleanser and lots of elbow grease, but have not done it. My old elbows would complain, and I only use baking soda to clean inside the pans, so far.
I have also heard to keep the pans as full as you can (without boiling over!), and this helps. Less sap is boiling against the lower sides of the pan, since it is full. So, there is less burnt sugar until you get to the end of the reducing time and then, you won’t boil over the burnt section because there is not more sap to add.
When it reduces down enough to add all the sap into one pan, it is exciting! Soon, we will filter and take the sap inside to finish making maple syrup! One of my goals for next year is to have a Dutch oven meal ready to use all those pretty embers.
This year, I did get to use some of the extra heat escaping from the door. We always talk about making a pre-heater. For an easy pre-heater, I used the camp coffee pot to pre-warm the sap for the preheat pan. It didn’t warm much sap, but I got to play with the fire!
Playing with the fire and the new barrel cooker is great springtime fun! Even with the short maple season, we were able to burn 4 times and make 8 quarts of syrup.
Happy Camping (or enjoying maple syrup with a camping breakfast!)