From Tree to Pancake – Let’s go Maple Sugaring

It takes thirty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup

There’s something fun about learning how to make things from people who have invested their time and energy into exploring traditional cooking methods.  Whether they’re experts sharing their passion or backyard tinkers trying to figure out how something works, it’s fascinating getting to take a deeper look into our food.

Sometimes it seems like we’ve lost too many of our cooking traditions, especially the community-based ones.  So much of what eat is so easy to get, we don’t have to work for it in the same way people did three or four generations ago.  I think this causes us to miss out on so much of what the world has to offer.

Some good friends recently invited a group of us to help them make maple syrup.  For the past few years, Bernell and Jamie have been making maple syrup from sap they collect from the sugar maples in their suburban yard.  This year was special because they were breaking in a new wood-burning stove that came from the family’s hunting cabin.

A Tradition of Sugaring

There’s a long tradition of maple sugaring in the North where sugar maples grow.  There are lots of stories about the celebrations people would have to welcome spring at the end of the sugaring season.

Spending the day helping to turn sap into syrup, I could see why the whole community would be involved in the work and why they would use it to celebrate spring’s arrival. It was easy to imagine how refreshing the first taste of sweet maple sap would taste straight from the tree after a long winter.  One of my favorite descriptions of a sugaring-off, which is one name for the celebrations, comes from Roaldus Richmond

A sugaring-off brings out the better side of folks.  The brisk mountain air, smelling of fresh earth, cool snow, burning wood, boiling syrup, and pine boughs… The men and women and children swarming around the sugarplace share a common hunger, with the delightful means of satisfying it close at hand and free as the March breeze.  The rigid winter is broken and gone, the feel of spring is in the air, and people grow mellow in the sunshine.  Old feuds are forgotten and good fellowship prevails.  Everything is natural, comfortable, and pleasant.

Time and Temperature

The process of making maple syrup revolves around having the right temperature at the right time.  It starts with the trees, as the trees get ready for spring they start to bring water from the ground up through their roots and into their branches to get ready for the growing season.  Sugar maples run best when there are freezing nights and warm sunny days.  This means the start of the season and how long it runs are completely weather dependent and moves around from year to year.

As the sap starts to run it needs to be kept cold or it will go sour.  When it’s time to make syrup the sap needs to be warmed before its added to the evaporator to make sure it doesn’t stop the boil.  And when it finally gets to the end, which can come quickly, the sap that has become syrup needs to come off the stove before it becomes sugar.

Getting sap from the trees starts by tapping them with a drill and a metal bit that has a spout on it and a hook to hold a bucket in place.  When its done right tapping doesn’t hurt the trees at all.  The sap is collected in buckets and then stored in a tank or large tub in our case. The sap is then cooked down in an evaporator until it becomes syrup.  You can also continue reducing it to get maple sugar. For us, the evaporator was a pan sitting in the top of the stove.

It took us almost ten hours to reduce ten gallons of sap to six cups of syrup.  In general, it takes over thirty gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup, which is almost mindboggling when you’re watching it happen and trying to understand how much sap it takes to get syrup.  All day long we kept pouring sap into the evaporator watching clouds of steam waft away into nothingness.

As the sap thickens and starts to turn into syrup, it spends a long time getting cloudy and steaming like a mad hatter.  All afternoon Jamie kept adding sap to the evaporator tray, every twenty or thirty minutes or so another pot would get poured gently into the tray, then the warming pot would get filled up from the holding tub.  The idea was to make sure we didn’t break the boil by adding cold sap.

A highlight was getting to drink sap straight from the tree.  When the sap comes out it is crystal clear, with a little sweetness to it, but only a hint of maple or as I can imagine a fancy wine snob saying “not a lot of legs, but it has sweet undertones of tree.”

We also figured out that if you reduce the sap by a quarter or so it makes wonderful Maple Toddies that work perfectly for keeping you warm while you’re tending the fire.  Both were good enough that my neighbors with sugar maples might start wondering what I’m doing in their backyards next spring.

As Night Falls the Sap Heats Up

By the end of the day, there were fewer of us finishing everything up, the food on the table had been picked over, and there were lots of tired bodies.

For as long as it takes to get there, the final steps go quickly.  Eventually, enough water has evaporated that the temperature starts to come up fast and the boil starts to change as the syrup becomes frothy and almost glides in sheets across the top of the pot when you stir it up.

From there it was one last filter and pouring it into jars.  Looking at the tiny little canning jars on the counter holding the golden-colored syrup it was hard to imagine that this was the same thing that we saw come out of the trees in the morning.

There’s a little of Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill in making syrup.  All day long as the sap goes into the evaporator, it’s followed by refilling the warming pot from the big tub, and as the sap from the big tub goes into warming pot sap from the buckets attached to the trees gets added to the big tub, and as the sap from the buckets goes into the big tub the trees are gently refilling the buckets as water from the ground slowly refills the trees, which makes it look like the amount of sap stays the same everywhere you go, no matter how much you’ve poured into the cooking pan.

It’s been a week since I got to go sugaring and as I’m writing this I’m eating pancakes with some of the syrup we made last weekend, and I’m thinking about how much fun it was to spend the day tending the fire, getting to meet new people, and try new things.

It makes me think about the stories I’ve read about sugaring in Vermont, where even the squirrels get into the fun. The squirrels use a slightly different process of biting deep enough into the trees to get the sap to run, which forms icicles that they can lick the next day.  Biting deep into a tree seems like a lot of work for a sweet treat, but I’m with the squirrels on this one.  It’s a treat that is completely worth the work.


Maple Toddy

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