There is this general assumption that if you don’t have the right tools, you cannot possibly do x, y or z. This is complete nonsense.
All my years of cobbled-together DIY projects have taught me two important things. The first is that I probably already have the tool at hand to do the job. And two, if I seriously want to increase production, that tool at hand might not suffice. The lesson I have thus learned is “try it once, and if it mostly works and you like the result, then prepare to shell out some cash for next time.”
Home cheesemaking is the most readily available example of this lesson. To make, press, age and store the cheese, I get by with items I already have in the house. This remains the case today with one important exception: I bought a cheese press. What a difference. I also let the goats buy me a cheese press, as in, I made enough money off the sale of their cheese to enable (justify?) the purchase of said press.
So, onward, maple-syrup making. If you drive around country roads now in my corner of the world, you will see all manner of tree-tapping techniques and implements. You’ll see the bases of maples cluttered with traditional sap pails, simple plastic gallon-sized buckets, our own sap-collecting bags, or a web of food-grade tubing piped from spiles to an awaiting 5-gallon bucket on the ground. I’ve even seen half-gallon Mason jars wired to the trees. The only unusual tool in this whole operation are the spiles themselves: at $1.50-$4.00 each, they’re a fairly small investment.
If you want to give it a go at your own house, you need only buy the spiles. You probably already have a stock pot and a roasting pan…and you can even skip the roasting pan if you watch the pot closely.
Bag slowly filling: it takes about a day or two to get half full
Pouring the sap into the big stockpot: yes, it’s just sweet-ish water at this point
Who says a watched pot never boils? Okay, sure, it does take a while to boil all this off.
We finish the sap in roasting pans. Once the surface sheets over as the temperature gets to be about 215-220*, it’s at the proper sugar ratio
We use my stainless steel milk strainer and high-temperature filter to strain the syrup. A few layers of cheesecloth or a thin cotton towel, draped in and rubber-banded to the jar’s neck would also have worked. Just pour very slowly!
So the next time you want to try something new at your own house, ask yourself this important question. Is the thing you wish to attempt an OLD thing? As in, what would your great-grandparents have done if they also wished to make it? Cheesemaking, breadmaking, gardening, charcuterie, maple sugaring: These things all predate fancy presses, bread machines, gas-powered tillers and aerated compost tea, pink salt and even our sap bags. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention.
So have a go!
Very true! I usually make do with what I have until I know I like the process enough that a tool investment is worth it. Also I love discovering that a tool I already have (say, pasta roller!) has a new, awesome purpose.
I love the great-grandparent logic–its really hard to get over the idea of having to do things just the right way. We had that problem of over-thinking when we built the mud oven and I had to convince myself that an ancient building technique should not require agonizing over the perfect clay mix. People had built these things for hundreds of years and it wasn’t rocket science. That said, our elders didn’t have the internet for researching collective experiences–that’s both a good and bad thing I think!
This is our 3rd year of collecting maple sap and our “make-do” attitude is still working well for us. My favorite new sap container is plastic gallon size vinegar bottles. Started out with milk jugs but the heavier plastic of the vinegar bottles stays on the spile better. This year we added a 55 gallon food grade drum to store the sap. We boil the sap 1-2 times a week on a turkey fryer and finish on the stove in the kitchen. Last year we had 25 taps but only went with 18 this year. More reasonable for our needs. All these years I always thought you had to have sugar maples and lots of expensive equipment. So glad to find out that just wasn’t true! It’s a lot of hard work but at least it’s only for a short time…but the payoff is extraordinary!!!
We tapped our silver maple last year- a big 3 foot diameter tree. There was a day toward the end of the sugaring season where the sap flowed over the top of a 3-gallon bucket in less than 24 hours. It was really amazing to see!
We ended up with 3+ pints of syrup at the end of a 2 or 3 week span. As you said- it was hard work, but so worth it. One unexpected thing was the sugar deposits in all of the steam. We found that surfaces where the condensation had collected got a bit sticky- like window ledges and handrails. Not sure how to deal with that.
I posted photos and updates last year at http://eighthacrefarm.blogspot.com/2011/03/tappin-it.html
BTW- one unexpected pleasant benefit of making syrup (that also reduced our final production some) was my realization that warm, slightly watery maple syrup is wonderful when mixed about 3:1 with bourbon or brandy. It made sitting down at the computer to write at the end of the day a lot easier.
Well, I drilled the sunny side of one tree a couple days ago and inserted a tap that started dripping today…how fun. I might have to do a couple more in the morning. We will probably just drink the sap this year but it is very good to know that if we want to we can make syrup. So glad you posted about this. I thought this article was kind of interesting – http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/06/world/asia/06maple.html
Wanted to know what people are using for evaporators. Are you cooking down over wood or a propane based burner? I have done it once over wood but the smoke curled down and passed over the sap repeatedly making a smoky tasting syrup.i have thought of doing it over propane but am concerned about the expense.any thoughts on this?
We used a propane burner, Tracy. We have two: one is a two=burner thing like on your stove and one is a big flame for under a turkey fryer (as if). We use the big one first and then move to finish in a shallow pan in the small one. Hope that helps…