Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hillbilly Ingenuity: Cooking Maple Sap

The sap stopped running 2 days earlier than Mr. Farmer's March 15 end-of-the-season projection. By that time we had already started cooking the sap into sweet syrup. It is pretty amazing to think that there is anything other than water in that perfectly clear, barely sweet sap that runs out of the trees like water out of a faucet. For at least hundreds of years, however, people have been boiling or steaming off the water and rendering a delicious treat. The season is just a few short weeks; it takes 40-50 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. That syrup has to last my pancake-loving family a whole year, so I have had to turn down multiple offers from people who wished to buy some. Mr. Farmer says that next year we'll have to tap more trees so that we can share.

Once we had 10 gallons collected, I lost the use of my dining room side server for several weeks. It was occupied by our 18 quart roaster oven. This particular piece of equipment is extremely versatile. We have used it for everything from keeping beans and kraut warm at picnics to roasting a full sized turkey or ham. My mother bought it for Mr. Farmer years ago, and we take great joy and pride in finding new uses for it. This year we used it to slowly steam the water off the sap. The low and slow method assured us of not burning our precious syrup, and it worked like a charm.

Thanks, Mom!
You are now officially an enabler of my husband's eccentricity!
(Sap in the Cooker)

Each day we added a few gallons of sap to the large cooker. To simplify the straining process later, we ran the sap through a coffee filter. Basically we covered the bottom end of a large, clean, plastic funnel with a coffee filter, held it in place by hand, and poured the sap through the funnel. (Yes, our hands got sticky. We had to wash them before AND after.) When the syrup level went down by an inch, we added another gallon. And another. And another. And another. Overnight we turned the heat down and covered it, since we couldn't watch it while we slept.

The first few days were a little disappointing. The level kept going down, so we knew there was evaporation happening, but the liquid remained clear. Mr. Farmer hovered over that cooker like a newborn baby: checking the temperature, stirring, adding more sap, dipping out a jelly-jar's worth to check the color and viscosity, shining a flashlight to see if there was any burnt sugar or sediment on the bottom of the cooker, and of course tasting. Finally, after nearly a week of care and worry, the syrup started to turn golden brown and sweeter.

After some thought and discussion, we decided to just keep one big batch rather than trying to bottle repeatedly during the process. When the sap stopped running and syrup turned dark brown and deliciously sweet, Mr. Farmer started bottling. There was a bit of sediment at the bottom of the cooker. While I am certain that it was maple sugar and not any kind of contaminant, it doesn't make for pretty syrup, so we strained it. Mr. Farmer rigged a funnel with a clean cloth held tight by a rubber band and set it in the mouth of a clean, half-gallon mason jar. He poured the syrup through the cloth/funnel assembly and I put on the lid and ring.

Our yield was just under 2 gallons this year. Keeping in mind that this pure, homemade maple syrup is far thinner than your traditional store-bought, artificial colored and flavored syrup, I figure we have just enough to get us through the year without ever needing to buy any. It pours so fast that I imagine we will use more of it that you would use of corn-based syrup. Plus, it is a little less sweet, so the kids will likely use more on their pancakes and in their oatmeal than they would normally. How sweet it is!

Our First Finished Maple Syrup
March 2011


  1. Excellent! Did I tell you I once was a member at the "Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm?" Every year they have a Maple Sugaring. They have a cabin. They set a date and people meet at this cabin. People pour the sap into a huge roaster...may even be a pig roaster...then they throw in (or gently place) eggs and potatoes. While people work and play during this gathering, the eggs hard boil and the potatoes cook through..and that is what we have for lunch. This is how they used to do it in historical times, while they worked and made their syrup. Fun.

  2. At what temperature did you set the roaster oven? About to head out on my first tree tapping adventure, and I plan to use the roaster oven method to cook down the sap. Can't wait!

    1. You don't want to go over 220. Low and slow- steam, not boil. We scaled it up this year to a massive aluminum pot on a propane burner designed for a turkey fryer... more on that later...

    2. Thanks! I look forward to hearing about it! :)

    3. The new cooker is up!