You will suffer much before you are finished. (Paraphrase of the prophecy concerning Odysseus’s journey home from Troy.)
You could also make this prediction for boiling down maple sap. It was 30F and miserable damp cold out there, and the wind was blowing at about 15 miles per hour with stronger gusts. I pointed this out to my husband who was suiting up to go out and set up our boiling operation on the back patio. (He had chopped up and removed the ice from most of the patio the previous day to make room for the propane tank and stove.
I said: “It’s miserable cold out there! No wonder people build sugar shacks for boiling down the sap. You don’t suppose we could put this off until another day when it’s warmer?”
His response: “Oh, you are such a whiner baby!”
My response: “Did you actually call me a whiner baby!?
I reluctantly arose from the Command Center ( aka., my recliner surrounded my piles of books, my computer, and crocheting supplies) to brave the elements and boil sap for the next 7 hours!
How much did we estimate what we would net for all of this labor? Sugar maple sap averages 3 percent sugar, which means roughly that for every gallon of sap, you get about 4 ounces of finished syrup. The sugar content in the sap of other types of maples usually is lower. We figured we would be lucky to get 2 percent per gallon from the type of maple that has been giving us the most sap so far (maybe 12 ounces of syrup from a 5-gallon pail of sap). It turns out that the first-run sap from that maple–not a sugar maple–was a whopping 4 percent, we were left with 5.5 cups of syrup from the 10 gallons of sap we had collected.
Sap runs in different trees can begin at different times, depending on the species and where the tree is located. The warmer the tree gets during the sap run, the more actively the sap moves up from the roots and into the branches. Our sugar maple has been slower to start in part because it is on the north side of a line of arbor vitae. That is why you want to place your spiles on the southeast to southwest rather than the north side of the trees you are tapping. We are learning that it can be pretty darn cold and the sap will still run if the sun is hitting the side of the tree with the spile in it.
Boiling sap is a subtractive process of boiling away water until you have just the liquid sugar. I used a gas-fired cooker designed to be used outside. It had a shield to block the wind and burners powerful enough to deep fry turkeys! I spent the first hour bringing the sap to the initial boil and adjusting the flames under the pans to achieve a steady simmer. I used some heavy-gauge stainless steel steamtable pans I’d picked up at garage sales for a buck a piece to boil my sap. The smaller pan fit neatly over one burner and the longer pan over the remaining burner and the space between. The longer pan boiled more strongly on one end than the other as a result. I found myself adding fresh sap to the
cooler end of the larger pan and transferring the more rapidly boiling sap at the other end of this big pan to the smaller, hotter pan on the other burner to finish boiling. (I used a busted stainless steel gravy boat I’m glad I didn’t throw away to transfer the boiling sap. It worked great and kept my hands from getting scalded.) Once I found the sweet spot in adjusting the burners for the initial boil, I was able to check on the sap on the stove every 15 minutes or so (using a kitchen timer to remind me) This allowed me to do other chores around the house and yard. (I have great respect for those who boil their sap over wood fires!)
Tending the sap only took a few minutes–skim the foam that formed with boiling to increase surface area for steam to escape, transfer boiling sap from the right hand pan to the smaller finishing pan, and then add fresh sap to the larger pan to heat up.
As more and more of the sap boiled down and I added the last of the hot sap
from the big pan to the small pan for the final stage of the boil, I had to stay with the almost-finished syrup constantly to avoid boil over. In the backyard sugaring book (see my March 20, 2014 blog) I was consulting, they recommended using a candy thermometer if you didn’t have a hydrometer for finishing the syrup. My eyes aren’t what they used to be, and I find a candy thermometer too hard to read (and I’m not spending money on a hygrometer when I already have something that does the job), so I used my electronic temperature probe thermometer to track the temperature of the finishing syrup. The book recommended measuring the temperature at which water boiled in your area on the day that you boil your sap and take that temperature plus 7 degrees as the temperature at which the sap is done. This is a very accurate way of judging the “doneness” of the end product.
I cooked my sap to 9 degrees above the temperature of boiling water and just about overcooked it! My husband came out and commented that it smelled like brown sugar–I immediately removed the pan from the heat! It was on the crumbling edge of turning into maple sugar.
I used a coffee filter set in a sieve. (You could also use paper towels, but it would take forever, and by this point in the day, trust me, you will just want to be off your feet.) They make special filters for this part of the process if you want to spend money, but a coffee filter is something most people already have in the house, and it filters out very fine particles, which is what you need for this job. The finished syrup has a sediment call niter in it that will cause your syrup to be bitter if you don’t remove it all.
Our syrup tastes like maple butterscotch. It also seems to be sweeter than cane sugar or store-bought pancake syrup. A little goes a long way. The color is deeper than that of the grade-A maple syrup you would buy from a professional sugar bush. I like a darker more robust syrup, so our final product was everything I had hoped it would be. So far, we have eaten it over waffles and baking powder biscuits. I’ve also used it as a sweetener for chai and have decided I like it better than honey.
The sap isn’t running right now because we have had another little snow and cold snap. It should warm up into the 40sF later in the week, and the sap will begin to flow into my buckets again! I plan to can the next batch of syrup. Until then–Begonia