There are a ton of items that you could make instead of buy. One of the more delicious examples is maple syrup. Any morning that starts with fresh syrup on my pancakes is considered a good day in my book. We’re going to go over each step in the process of making homemade maple syrup from tapping the tree to boiling the sap.
To make your own maple syrup you need just a few things.
Choosing a Tree
The first step in making maple syrup is selecting which trees to tap. Maple trees are one of the most identifiable trees due to the shape of their leaves and the wonderful seeds that most of us played with as kids and referred to as “helicopters”.
There are multiple types of maple trees. Which one should I use for sap? Truth is any adult maple tree will produce sap. Sugar maples are known for the higher concentration of sugar in their sap, but any adult tree will do.
Find a tree that is around 25” in circumference or bigger will work. The bigger the tree the more taps you can use. If you can’t wrap your arms around it you could do as many as 3 in one tree. You will need at least 3-4 trees, but the more trees you have the more syrup you’ll end up with.
Tapping the Tree
Now that you’ve selected your trees, how and when should you tap them?
Sap runs up the tree typically in late winter/early spring. Temperatures should be above freezing during the day and below freezing at night for the sap to run. Avoid tapping too early in the winter during a brief warm up.
Typically in the Midwest, the sap season will fall sometime during the month of February. The later the season occurs typically the shorter it will be. The further south you are the earlier it will be.
Where to Place Your Tap
So we’ve selected trees and the weather is right, now it’s time to tap them.
A tap, also know as a spile, is simply a device inserted into the tree to redirect the sap out of the tree and into your collection device. If this is your 1st time, you will probably just be using a bucket or Sap Bag to collect your sap.
Look for the side of the tree that gets the most sunlight. This will typically be the south side of the tree, but depending on where your tree is located it could be on the east or west side as well. Find a spot around 4’-5’ high over a root.
You will need to drill a hole into the tree using a drill bit that is the same size as your tap. The tap should fit tight in the hole so sap doesn’t leak out. Drill your hole almost parallel to the ground but with just a bit of an angle down towards the ground.
Drill just into the sapwood (the layer just under the bark) about 1”. Going deeper will not help you get more sap. If you are drilling during the right conditions you will almost immediately see sap in your drill hole.
Insert your tap into the hole and make sure the sap is running into your tap and not underneath.
Setting up Your Sap Container
You can also either hang a bucket right under the tap by putting a nail or screw above the tap to hang the bucket on, or you can set a bucket on the ground and run tubing from the tap to the bucket on the ground.
If you decide to run tubing to a bucket on the ground you will need a lid for your bucket. Drill a hole in the lid just big enough for the tube. This will keep rainwater and bugs and leaves and all kinds of stuff out of your sap.
You will have to secure your bucket. I promise you it will get blown or knocked over. Use bungees or twine/rope and strap/tie your bucket to the tree. If your bucket has a handle put the rope through it to keep the bucket secure.
Sap Math: How Much Sap Do you Need for Syrup?
Now it’s time for some of that patience to kick in. It takes roughly 40 gallons of sap to get 1 gallon of syrup.On a really good day, you might get a gallon of sap per tap, but will typically be ¼ to ½ gallon per day.
Sap will stop running if the overnight temps stay above freezing and will start up again when lows get below freezing again. If the weather warms for a few days you will want to collect any sap in your buckets and refrigerate it so it doesn’t go bad until you’re ready to boil.
I would recommend having at least 20 gallons of sap before starting the boiling process, but really around 80 gallons is ideal as an 80 gallon batch of sap should yield about 2 gallons of syrup.
Boiling the Sap
There are many ways you can boil down your sap from on your kitchen stove to expensive sap evaporators, but all you really need is a heat source and a container to boil your sap.
Boiling sap can become a “sticky” situation so I would recommend doing the majority of your boiling outside and bringing it inside for the final boil when you need a controlled heat.
Propane can be an option but you will typically spend more $ on propane than you get in finished syrup, so my preferred source of heat is firewood. Any type of dried firewood will work:
- Selecting a Pan: When selecting the pan or pot you will use to boil your sap, you want to look for something that has the most surface space. A wide and shallow pan will boil much faster than a tall stockpot. This is a critical step, as the boiling process can take a very long time if you have collected our preferred amount of 80 gallons of sap. Stainless steel would definitely be the preferred material for your pan.
- Building Your Firebox: After selecting your pan, you will need to construct some type of firebox to place your pan over for the boil. I have seen lots of contraptions, and they all work, but the key to this step is to keep your heat contained as much as possible to get your sap to boil. The most efficient homemade way I have seen is a barrel stove with a hole in the top that perfectly fits the size of the pan, but could be simply a stone block built to fit your pan on top. The more areas for the heat to escape, the longer the boil will take.
- Boil: Once your fire is going and the pan is in place, start filling your pan with sap. If you have not done so in previous steps, filter your sap through a strainer or Filter Cloth to remove any debris that may have been caught in your buckets. Try not to fill the pan completely as you don’t want the sap to boil over the edge. As the sap boils down, keep filling it with more sap. This is the most time-consuming part of the whole process. It may take 2 days to boil down 80 gallons. (You don’t need to stand and watch it the whole time, but you do need to check it at regular intervals. If you let your sap pan get down to just the syrup in the bottom you can burn it.) As you continue to add more sap, you will start to see the sap changing color from clear to amber. This is because you’re getting a higher concentration of syrup the more sap you boil out.During the boiling process, you will see some foam build on the top of the pan and it will look dirty. Use a hand strainer and skim the top of the pan to help remove this.Once you have all your 80 gallons of sap boiled down to about 4 gallons, it’s time to move the party inside for a controlled boil on the stove. Remember, we should get about 2 gallons of syrup from our 80 gallons of sap so we are almost there.
- Controlled Boil: Now you will want to convert your pan to a stock pot to boil over the stove. Our desired temperature to be officially syrup is 219º F or 7º F above the boiling point of water. You can use a candy thermometer to check your temperature once you get over 212º, but the syrup will also let you know when it’s ready. You will start to get a rapid foam build in your pan when it’s at the right temperature. You will need to be watching carefully at this point so that the foam doesn’t boil over the pan. Turn off the heat when this happens. Congratulations! You now have a pot full of maple syrup.
The final step is storing your new liquid gold. There are lots of fancy jars you can buy to make your syrup look official, but assuming you are making your syrup for your own enjoyment, the easiest way to store it is in canning jars.
Select your preferred size jar and make sure the jars are clean. While your syrup is still hot from the boiling process you can pour directly into your jars. Leave an inch of headspace and put your canning lid on. They will seal on their own with no additional boiling needed. Let them cool overnight and you are finally ready to enjoy fresh homemade maple syrup.
- You will notice a sand-like material at the bottom of your jar of syrup. This is called sugar sand and is a natural part of the syrup making process. It’s not harmful and can be eaten. If you really don’t like it you can filter this out by running your syrup through cheesecloth or coffee filters before canning but this is not an easy process. Professional filters are available from some large syrup producers as well. The coffee filter method is very slow. The cheesecloth will filter some of the sand but will require multiple attempts.
- Maple syrup can vary dramatically in color from very light brown to very dark brown. The color will get darker as the season progresses.
- Don’t drill your tap holes in the same spot every year as this can damage the tree. Move them at least 6 inches from the previous spot and go either higher or lower the following year. If you’re using a smaller tree you will want to skip a year before tapping again. To keep track, try using a Tree Tapping Log.
- The sap season can last around 2-3 weeks but mother nature is not always so giving. If there is an extended warm period directly following a cold period it can end the season after only a few days. When the berries on the tree are getting large and starting to fall the season is over.