When there is still snow on the ground and it is too cold to do most other outdoor projects around the homestead, maple syrup making seems like the perfect activity to welcome in Spring. It’s like the kick-off party to warmer weather, sunshine and green grass.
Maple syrup making seems like it could be intimidating, but the truth is you need only a few things, and one or two decent-sized maple trees. AND YOU DON’T NEED SUGAR MAPLES!
So how many trees do you need? And how much maple syrup can you expect to get and from how much work? I’m going to break down some simple stats for you from this year’s first harvest and give you a step-by-step of how we do it.
This tutorial is for small-scale production (like a few cups to a few gallons of finished syrup).
2015 Maple Stats
Trees: we don’t even have sugar maples! We’ve successfully tapped Silver and Autumn Blaze (a cross between Red and Silver) for years with great success!
This year we tapped only two trees, with three taps:
Tree 1 (Autumn Blaze Maple) Diameter: 12.5 inches = 1 tap.
Tree 2 (Autumn Blaze Maple) Diameter: 18 inches = 2 taps.
Sap Collection Timeline:
Tapped on a Saturday.
Collected Tuesday: 4 gallons total.
Collected Thursday: 4 gallons total.
Collected Friday morning: 2 gallons total.
= 10 gallons of sap from two trees in one week. And this was average at best. I don’t think the trees were pouring out sap at the rate they have some years (it was a little too warm!).
Sap Boiling Timeline
Friday was our first boiling day, just shy of one week since we first tapped the trees. Karl started the fire going, which took about a half hour to get up to a roaring cooking temperature. He used three pans, starting cold sap in each one, and could fit 8 gallons between them. After about an hour of boiling the sap down, he split the 2 remaining gallons between the pans and topped them off.
We do the bulk of the boiling outside, and then the last finishing (requires monitoring the temperature) in the house. Boiling 10 gallons of sap down to 1/2 gallon took 3 hours (using 3 pans). We brought the almost-syrup into the house and spent another 20 minutes finishing it on the stove.
And then we licked every spoon, bowl and pan that had any speck of maple syrup on it.
Sap to Syrup: How Much Did We Get?
We started with 10 gallons of sap and finished with about 5 cups of maple syrup. This seems to be the ratio that we consistently get.
10 gallons X 16 cups per gallon = 160 cups of sap.
160 cups of sap/5 cups finished syrup = sap to syrup ratio of 32:1.
This is just from one week. We don’t like the sap to sit around for more than a week, otherwise it starts to ferment and get cloudy and icky (unless we get a cold snap and can keep it below 40F outside). We try to boil a batch every weekend, if possible. In the past we have frozen the sap if we have any room in our monstrous freezer and didn’t have time to boil it right away.
Or we boil it down and then freeze the almost-syrup. And when we have a few batches of almost-syrup, we thaw and then finish them.
**Update: We just finished our second boiling for the season. Mother Nature turned it on and from the same two trees (three taps) we got another 18 gallons in one week’s time. That boiled down to about 9 cups of finished syrup.
**Update #2: At the time of posting this, we’ve gotten 40 gallons from two trees in three weeks time. Which has boiled down to over a gallon of finished syrup! From only two tress and in 3 weeks time! Small-batch maple making is totally worth it!
How to Make Maple Syrup at Home
Why bother making maple syrup? In the words of Karl: “Because it’s awesome. It’s like this resource that’s been sitting in your yard and has always been there, and you’ve never even thought about it, and it produces the most incredible stuff. And it can be free! And from a dietary and health aspect, you go to all the work of hauling the sap, splitting the wood, boiling the sap. Making sugar is a lot of work- and that’s why you can feel good about eating that sugar, because you worked for it, you really earned it.”
When to Tap
When the days start to warm above freezing but the nights are still below freezing, that is when it’s maple-go-time. This will depend on where you live, and also the weather that year. Just like any “crop,” you’ll have good years and bad years. Karl follows a state maple syrup forum to get a gauge on when other people in our area are tapping- why they’re tapping now or waiting.
“During warm periods when temperatures rise above freezing, pressure (also called positive pressure) develops in the tree. This pressure causes the sap to flow out of the tree through a wound or tap hole. During cooler periods when temperatures fall below freezing, suction (also called negative pressure) develops, drawing water into the tree through the roots. This replenishes the sap in the tree, allowing it to flow again during the next warm period.”
-Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension Program
Once you drill a hole in the tree, you have about a 4-week window before the hole will start to close and essentially start to scab over. If you drill too early, you can’t re-drill the holes (well, you can, but you shouldn’t, or you risk killing your tree). If you drill too late, you may miss a good run at the beginning.
One other consideration is when the trees start to develop buds. This can create a bitter flavor in the finished syrup, so most people stop collecting sap when the buds pop out.
Drill: use whatever you have. The size of the bit will depend on the taps you use, since they can differ. And you need to make sure that the bit size matches the tap size. The hole will be drilled 1.5-2.5 inches deep and at a very slight angle. Because… well, gravity.
Taps or “Spiles”: we have a couple of cool, old cast iron taps, and a few brand new ones- they both work great. This is what sticks into the tree and directs the sap where you want it. There are many different options, depending on your preferences and mostly what style collection vessel you use.
Stainless Steel Tapered 4-Pack: (7/16″) tapered to prevent leakage, last a lifetime, come with hooks.
Stainless Steel 10-Pack: (5/16″) use with bags or buckets.
Hard Plastic 5-pack: (5/16″) requires a smaller hole in the tree; better for tree; very affordable.
Hard Plastic 10-Pack with Drop Lines: (5/16″) the tubing connects to the spile and drops down into whatever bucket you have sitting on the ground. People like to drop these into milk jugs especially.
Tip: See in the photo above- Karl uses a block of wood to hammer the tap into the tree, so he doesn’t have to hammer directly on the metal tap and potentially deform it.
How many taps should you use per tree? From the Cornell extension office:
“A healthy tree 10-17 inches in diameter (31-53 inch circumference) should have no more than one tap. A tree 18-24 inches in diameter (57-75 inch circumference) should have no more than two taps. A tree larger than 25 inches in diameter (79-inch circumference) should have no more than three taps.”
Collection Buckets: actual metal maple syrup buckets just look so nice out there on the trees. Lids are great to prevent debris or rain and snow from getting in (and yes, they’re usually sold separately).
Or you could go with the more modern plastic bags. I’m not sold on them- I think they seem expensive for what they are. They might be more useful if tapping a tree in an area were there are a lot of random people walking by.
Really, you can use whatever you may have lying around… just try to make sure that what you’re using was meant for food, and never had any harmful chemicals in it. And if it doesn’t hang nicely from your tap, get out your wire or ball of twine and tie ‘er up.
Storage Buckets: possibly the best kept secret in homesteading is bakery buckets. We get food-grade, clean buckets from the local grocery store bakery and deli departments. Depending on which store, they’re either free or $1 each- which is still a steal. These are usually 4-gallon buckets with rubber gasketed lids. And they’re perfect for storing maple sap on a small scale.
A cooler works well, and most people have at least one. Borrow more from friends and family if you need to- they’re probably not using them this time of year. Even better if you can get your hands on a big, food-grade drum.
We don’t have any fancy maple processing equipment at all- just a couple old pans and some other old junk we found. I love being able to use “old junk we found.”
Pans: wider, more shallow pans are the best- after all, you are technically “evaporating,” so surface area is your friend. Big Nesco oven inserts work really well and so do enameled canning pots (look for them at thrift sales!). Be aware that whatever you use will become covered in soot if you’re boiling over an open fire… so don’t use someone’s nice piece of kitchen equipment.
If you’d like to buy something new that will work really well, get a couple of these stainless steel buffet pans! At about $25 a pop, they are perfect and will last a long time.
The more pots you use, the faster the boiling will get done. If all you have is one pot, that’s okay too- but you will enjoy a nice loooong relaxing day out by the fire. Bring marshmallows.
Boiling: Sap to Syrup
First, remove any bugs from the sap. It’s the outdoors, bugs happen.
Our favorite set-up is in the fire pit, with cinder blocks on each side, with the old steel fence posts spanning between them, old oven racks on top of those and then the pots sit on top of the racks. We like to make sure it is a sturdy surface that won’t change or shift as the fire burns. But if you’re using longer rectangle pots (not circle) the oven grates aren’t totally necessary.
We don’t like the idea of using a propane tank and burner… just because propane is expensive and maple takes a long time. However, if that’s all you’re able to use, then go for it.
Karl uses maple boiling as a nice time to relax in nature, soak up the sun, work on clearing brush from the edge of the woods and stocking the wood pile. The fire and boiling sap should be watched fairly closely- definitely don’t go out of eye shot from it, but feel free to make the most of your time outside.
Sometimes when it’s vigorously boiling, all the sudden it will start to foam up. Karl uses a sieve to skim the foam, otherwise it keeps boiling over and you lose more sap than if you wouldn’t have skimmed it. Maybe that only makes sense when you see it in person. Anyways… just be prepared, as it kind of happens out of the blue.
Filtering & Finishing
What I mean by finishing is what happens to the product in the final 30-60 minutes. When the sap has been greatly reduced and has taken on a golden brown color, but it still very liquid and not yet thickened like syrup, we bring it in the house to finish it on the stove.
Knowing when to bring it in the house is a bit of an art. It helps to know how much sap you started with, so you can guesstimate the final amount of finished sap you should have, and eyeball when you’re close to it.
Karl brings a big bowl out with him to dump the almost-syup into, then we bring it in the house for filtering. I place a big sieve over a pot, then place a flour sack towel nesting in the sieve (I think a lot of other people use cheesecloth). We pour the hot, almost-syrup through it, collecting all the impurities and bits of ash in the towel. If there is a lot of sediment/gunk, the bottom of the towel where the majority of the sap is being filtered will get clogged, so we shift the towel, moving a clean spot to the bottom area.
After it is filtered, we fire it up and return to boiling it. Depending on how far we’ve already taken it down, it takes us anywhere from 15-45 minutes to finish it.
So, how do you know it is done? Well, when it reaches the temperature of about 7 degrees above the boiling point of water… or approximately 219F if you’re around sea level. If you go too short of this, you have too many water molecules present and your syrup will be more likely to get moldy. If you take it past this point, your syrup can crystalize.
If you don’t have a thermometer, wait for the bubbles to change from large to small and foamy. Keep a dinner plate in the freezer (ahead of time) and drop a teaspoonful of syrup onto it to check the consistency. If it thickens and looks like syrup on the plate, it is probably done.
Canning & Storing Maple Syrup
Immediately after we hit the 219 degree mark, we have our sterilized canning jars ready and ladle the hot syrup into them, using a funnel to minimize spills. The lids go on and then the bands are screwed on just finger tight. This is the hot pack method of preserving, and it has worked well for us. We store our maple syrup with our other canned goods and it lasts for at least a year or more.
Alternately, you can freeze it almost indefinitely. We did this the first year we made maple syrup and it worked great as well.
Maple Syrup Starting Kit
This is a great idea! It comes with everything you need to collect sap (at the time of posting this, the kit is $109.95). Find it —> HERE!
This would also be a phenomenal gift idea for a family with a couple maple trees in their yard, or for anyone who is interested in being more self-sufficient or learning more about where their food comes from.
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