Monday, April 22, 2013

Making maple syrup

Pan of boiling sap
Making maple syrup is both easy and difficult at the same time. There's not a lot to it - gather sap from trees, collect it into a big pot, boil it until it becomes syrup. It sounds incredibly simple. Still, there's a certain level of art to taking raw sap and turning it into something you desperately want to pour onto pancakes in the morning.

Sap thickening slowly
You can find information on the tapping and collecting process by clicking here. Once your sap is in the bucket, you need to bring it to the place you'll be doing your boiling. It's generally considered smart to boil your sap outdoors, even if you're only processing a few pints as we did. Otherwise, the sugar that boils off will coat your walls and ceilings. I chose to boil indoors for convenience sake, and because I really wasn't set up to do it outdoors, and so I also knew I'd be spring cleaning my kitchen after I was done.

The first thing you do to your sap is filter it. It's possible to filter the raw sap through a coffee filter, but you have to be really patient. I prefer to use a sieve lined with thick cheesecloth, because the liquid runs through it much faster and it still catches any bark or bugs or other detritus in the sap. The cleaned liquid should then be poured into the largest pot or pan you have, with the biggest opening.

Sap starting to sheet
While you can certainly boil sap down to syrup in a regular soup or stock pot, it will go much faster in a long, flat pan. I used the bottom of my turkey roaster, which sits over two burners on my stove. Set your burners to just above medium and get the sap to boiling. The first hour or so you probably don't have to look at it much. As more and more water is removed, and more sugar is left behind, it will evaporate faster.

You can also pour one container into another as it boils down. I often start with three or four containers of raw sap, and as they boil down I will consolidate them into the roasting pan to finish up. If you are boiling sap and have more raw sap to add, you can do so provided it's filtered beforehand. This won't hurt your finished product at all.

Use a funnel to pour
When the sap starts to look less like water and more like a watery gravy in consistency, it's time to settle down and watch it. If you can notice it thickening at all, then you should not leave the pan for more than a minute. I find that stirring the sap with a spoon (I prefer a metal one that allows me to see the sheeting happening) helps keep the evaporation even. I'm less likely to end up with maple sugar (or worse, burnt sugar!) because it's moving around. You can also feel the bottom of the pan and can turn the heat down if it starts to get grainy.

There are many detailed instructions on how to get perfect maple syrup, and I will tell you that unless you plan on selling it, it really doesn't matter. My syrup would probably roll in at a very thick Grade A dark, if it were to be graded, but I don't bother. After all, I'm not buying it, I'm making it, and I know when it tastes right. You can follow the instructions if you like, but it will take you much longer and sometimes results in a less-than-pleasing syrup. I find that using temperature to gauge my syrup rather than palate tends to lead to a very watery syrup. I like mine much thicker!

Finished amber syrup
If you aren't using temperature as your guide, then you must watch with eyes and taste buds carefully. The hot syrup runs almost as smoothly as the cold sap, so you can't use thickness alone to make your decision. I find that dripping a bit of the syrup onto a cold plate or metal bowl allows me to see what the consistency is when it's cooled. Check the sweetness with a clean spoon (or like me, use a spatula to gather up the dribbled bits). When texture, consistency and flavor all match your liking, turn off the heat.

Let the boil stop completely before jarring up your syrup. It should still be hot, though, to allow for easier pouring. Wide mouth, pint size Ball jars work very well, as do jam jars. You can also purchase special maple syrup jars if you want to give them as gifts or just like your syrup to look professional. Use a funnel to pour into the jar, and then carefully wipe the rim with a clean paper towel or cloth to ensure there is no sap on it. Put on the lid and ring if you're using canning jars, or simply screw on the lid provided if you have syrup jars.

Maple syrup will last up to a year on the shelf, but will be good almost forever if kept frozen. In fact, a good test to see if you've done an adequate job of boiling out the water is to freeze a jar of your maple syrup. The following day, pull it out and tip the jar over. If you would be able to pour the syrup out of the jar, then you've hit the nail on the head, and your syrup is just fine; enough water has evaporated and the remaining sugar is so dense that it prevents the syrup from freezing solid.

The 2013 maple syrup yield!
Have you ever had the opportunity to tap trees or make maple syrup? Do you use maple syrup only for pancakes and waffles, or do you cook with it as well?

Linked to the Homestead Barn Hop #108, Tuesday's With a Twist #7, and Common Sense Preparedness!

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