I didn’t grow up with real maple syrup. I lived in Far West Texas (El Paso), and was pretty poor. My step-father used to dole out toppings for pancakes in those little plastic medicine cups. We had a choice of either powdered sugar or Aunt Jemima. (I looked at one of those ingredients lists the other day. Ack! That’s not food, it’s “food”!)
I confess that when I have pancakes for breakfast now, I’m a little heavy handed with the powdered sugar sprinkles … mmm, with melted butter. But I always ALSO have plenty of real maple syrup, too. Yum! I'm spoiled!
I love to cook with maple syrup. I put it into my bread recipe. I like it in savory dishes, too, especially when combined with soy sauce and black trumpet mushrooms. I always make my Thanksgiving sweet potatoes by dicing them up small, roasting them and some pecans, and then drizzled with maple syrup.
Making maple syrup is something really special. We have quite a few maple trees on our property, and are slowly trying to improve our sugar bush. Every year, we tap more and more of them, using tubing and ever larger containers. We are tapping enough this year to make the farm show at least a small profit in a season with few other income opportunities. It’s too early to plant even seeds indoors, and too muddy in the woods to log.
We have a hobby level evaporator, 4 feet long by 2 feet wide, just called a “2 x 4.” We use all of the slab that is left over from running our sawmill as well as the slash, the tops and branches from harvested trees that would otherwise be left in the woods to rot. The rule of thumb is a cord of wood for 25 gallons of syrup. Fossil fuel has been too expensive to use since the oil embargo in 1973, and besides it’s just wrong to burn oil in the middle of the woods. There’s never a problem getting rid of scrap wood in New England.
It takes a lot of sap to make syrup too – 40 gallons of sap will turn into 1 gallon of syrup after you boil all the water away. Sap has about 2 percent sugar in it, and we boil it until it has 66 percent. A tree can have one tap for every nine inches of diameter. Like most small operators, we use a mixture of pails, one hanging from each tap, and runs of tubing fed by several trees into a larger container at the bottom of the hill. Big operators use all tubing, and use vacuum pumps to pull out more sap.
While I’m boiling it, just like when I make stock, I skim the surface of the bubbly scum that rises to the top. Sometimes the steam is so thick that it’s really hard to see what I’m doing, but I’ve learned to use gusts of wind to my advantage.
For the first three years, I just boiled out in the open, because though I keep putting “sugar house” on my wishlist, it still hasn’t appeared. Darn it! Then last year, I scored a truck camper shell off of The Freecycle Network. I thought I might be able to use it for a roof for another chicken coop, but we never got around to building it. This year, when it was getting close to sugaring season, I suggested we use that shell for a roof on top of a sugar shack, and we got it done just in time. So at least this year we have a start on our sugar shack.
I don’t do the whole process out on that evaporator, though. We get as close as we dare, and then draw it off and finish it in a big stainless steel pot on top of a propane burner. It’s so easy to scorch it and burn it as it’s getting close to syrup that I’m not willing to try it in huge batches with burning wood. I think you have to have done it for decades before you are that good! Even many people whose grandfather taught them to finish on the evaporator now use a finishing pot as it’s called.
As the season starts out, the syrup is lighter in color and more delicate in flavor. Many people use this lightest stuff to make things like maple candy. As the season progresses, the syrup naturally gets darker and darker, until the very end of the season, when it's almost black. That's my favorite! It's so flavorful and holds up in cooking with other strong flavors. Yum.
[Ed. Note: Check out this video of Lisa running her syrup evaporator.]