We have a few maple trees where we live in Westchester county, in NY state. I gave tapping them a go this year. I had decided to do it last summer, and that was when I walked around and identified the maple trees by their leaves, and put a green ribbon around a few so that I could find them again mid-winter. Then I let time pass on.
For Christmas I got the family a small maple tapping kit: 3 buckets, 3 splines, 3 lids, some cheese cloth, a 5/16 drill bit and a little book explaining how it’s done. The kit came and was opened Christmas morning, and again we let time pass on.
February rolled around and I had it in mind to read that little book. We happened to go to Muscoot Farm on Saturday February 20th, and they had set their taps a week before. That got me into action, for fear of missing out on a maple tapping season that had come early and might end quickly. The next day I read the instruction book and went out and tapped 3 trees. It was a mild day and the sap was flowing.
That the sap flowed was a surprise, and it seems to surprise most people I talk to who have never tapped a maple tree. We who have never done it before just aren’t too sure we can do it ourselves, and just don’t have a concept of how a tree functions until we are actually dealing with how it functions. All of a sudden, I was dealing a sap storage problem. The sap was flowing strongly, and I realized I didn’t have any place to put it if it filled the buckets that were on the trees.
I ordered five 5 gallon food grade buckets and screw top lids from Lowe’s (were cheaper at Lowe’s than at Amazon). I went to the local grocer and asked for any buckets they might be throwing out – they found one 4 gallon bucket for me. So, until the 5 big buckets arrived, I had the extra 4 gallon one to hold me over.
My storage problem was solved, and I would keep the gallons of sap I collected under the back porch, in the corner that never got any sun.
Now I had a processing problem. I realized I was collecting between 5 and 15 gallons per week, depending on the weather. From what I read, raw sap will store well at low temperatures, but if temperatures climb and vary, your sap may spoil. So, now I had to figure out what to do with my sap. It would be a shame to tap a tree and let the sap spoil.
Easiest and cheapest solution: just drink it. No kidding. That sap is good stuff. It comes out of the tree clear as water, cool as a mountain brook. It’s lightly sweet, with that really great maple syrup taste. Until my storage buckets arrived, I drank a lot. Drank some raw, and then just to be safe, boiled a gallon or two for just 3 minutes, and kept that in the fridge, and drank it like water or lemonade. Really neat!
But then I did want to try making some syrup, because, well, that’s what everybody does with maple sap. So, how to boil this down?
You see pictures of people boiling outside on an open fire. But I’m pretty sure our town has a restriction against open fires, and I didn’t want the risks that an open fire entails. We have a fair number of trees, but not that much lawn, so an open fire would be very near tons of dry leaves, dried branches, and trees. Too risky.
My first try was on a wood fired outdoor camping grill. FAIL. Not enough flame, took forever to get to a simmer (hours) and I would be burning wood like it was going out of style.
Next I tried putting a pot in front of and on our fireplace insert. FAIL. No stable resting spot on the insert, not fast enough in front of the insert – never boiled, and again, too much wood burned.
Finally I just put 3 pots on the stove and started boiling away. That, of course, worked. I boiled down three gallons of sap and got a little over half a pint of syrup. Ok, so, making syrup truly is possible. I can do it. But doing it in your home is not a great idea – the kitchen was dripping wet, with steam water running down the cabinets. And that was just 3 gallons. Sap to maple syrup is 40 to 1: 1 gallon of syrup comes from 40 gallons of sap. If I were to boil 40 gallons of sap in the kitchen, the cabinets would warp and the drywall would collapse in a heap around the stove. I had to find another way.
I started thinking about a hot plate outside. A fellow at work suggested an induction hot plate. I had never really known what that was. I researched it. Seemed like a good idea. An induction hot plate heats the pot through magnetic induction, it doesn’t use radiant heat. Only the pot gets hot, and if the pot leaves the plate, the induction stops and the plate is not too hot. Seemed like a pretty safe solution for multi-hour outdoor boil downs in a household with a 3 year old. Less chance of burns, fire, etc. You don’t have to constantly tend the pot. And it sounded like induction cookers brought water to a boil pretty fast. Exactly what I needed.
So with the gallons adding up in storage under the porch (12 by now), I ordered an induction hot plate and a 9 quart cast iron dutch oven pot. For induction to work, the cookware has to respond to magnets, as cast iron does.
The equipment came and I set it up on the back porch. SUCCESS. At full power, the 1800 Watt induction plate brought the 9 quarts to a boil in about an hour – not a rolling boil, but a boil nonetheless – in forty degree weather. It took ten hours to boil down 5 or so gallons, adding a gallon more to the pot as a gallon boiled away. Not the fastest process, but more energy efficient than wood, and safer, and less troublesome.
I could do it overnight and get up every couple hours to refill the pot, or do it on a Saturday, and the person at home can just add more sap while one goes off on an errand. The pot doesn’t require any tending – no stirring.
So five gallons does indeed make a pint of syrup, and it does indeed taste very good. With an 1800 W induction hot plate, I estimate (given electric costs of $0.144/kWh) we are paying about $0.26/hr of boil, so $2.50 – $3.00 dollars per pint of syrup. Not bad.
I do bring the last inch or so of sap in from the porch for a final boil on the stove, where I pour it into a smaller pot through a cheese cloth strainer, and test the consistency with a spoon.
That’s how I do it, and I think I’ve got a system in place for next year. All in all, a success.