Maple Syrup, Freely Available in Your Backyard, Right Now. Here's the Tale:
Since I was a small child I had the understanding that Aunt Jemima’s syrup was something akin to maple syrup, and that maple syrup was made using maple trees. Once upon a time in elementary school, we went on a field trip to one of these places where they tapped trees, collected syrup, evaporated it down, sold it in 6 oz maple leaf-shaped bottles. That was cool. I’m sure I was stoked on the idea of delicious syrup coming from a tree. I probably wanted to do it myself. But I was 8-years old. I shot hoops, played video games and read WWII books. Maple syrup production fell off the radar.
It’s now two decades later and a few factors have developed such that, once in a while, an idea makes it out of my head and into reality. These factors include that I have 1) started earning an income, 2) developed unremarkable skills with hand and power tool, 3) become affected by an almost entirely baseless belief that I can create and do anything. My multi-disciplinary mentors, youtube and google, help this belief occasionally manifest in success, and 4) I am still 8-years old in my wide-ranging enthusiasms. Procuring delicious, nutritious, free food from nature is definitely one of those enthusiasms.
Lately this enthusiasm was expressed in my chase of cervids through the forests and mountains, leading to a freezer full of elk and deer meat. I have been curious, though, about plants. About foraging. Mushrooms, asparagus, berries, apples, onions and the like. This stuff just grows out there. It’s in the ditch, in your yard, and on your public land. The looking for, gathering, processing, eating and sharing of this freely-available bounty seems like just the thing to further the reawakening of my home-state ardor. It appears that wild foods, foraging, has been added to richly abundant list of Backyard Adventures.
Food from nature is pretty straightforward.
I don’t think the rest of the alphabet gets any more complicated.
It turns out that any maple tree will work. The praised “Sugar Maple” and the denigrated “Norwegian Maple” both work just fine. “Silver Maple” or “Black Maple”. Whatever. I bet those would work too. I read maybe you shouldn’t tap a “Red Maple” to make maple syrup, but I have to imagine that is just folklore and that it would actually work the same.
Supposedly, these are the ideal days for collecting sap, these early spring days with nights below freezing and afternoons into the 40s. Supposedly, the sap is flowing from the roots up to the branches and buds during the warmth of the day and back to the roots during the cool of the night. Supposedly, all the sap flows through the thin living layer just inside of the bark, and it would be possible to collect over a gallon-a-day through a wee-little hole drilled into the mass of the trunk, and this wouldn’t just be water, but it would be sap with some concentration of sugar in it, and the sap could be reduced it to a higher sugar concentration just by boiling it, and it wouldn’t just be sugary water, but it would be beautiful brown-amber aromatically complex maple syrup.
Simple. Tap a tree, collect the sap, boil it down. Simple, but there is a lot of “supposedly” that needed proving out.
Turns out it really was that simple. There are two big ‘ol maples (Norwegian, I think) in my front yard, and on a 40F sunny afternoon I drilled a 5/16” hole a few inches into a tree’s trunk. Sap started flowing out immediately. I hammered in a spile and hung a bucket. With 2 trees and one tap each, I had 8 gallons of sap in 3 days. I boiled the crystal-clear sap in this 20” wok over this hugely powerful propane burner.
Slowly the level in the wok became lower and lower. Once the level was low enough that I was concerned about scorching, I poured off the remaining liquid into another bucket. I could smell maple syrup in the air, could see the color starting to darken and could feel the sticky mess caused by spilling any of the reduced sap.
I probably reduced the sap by about 7x in the wok. Supposedly (another one), finished maple syrup was about a 40x reduction of maple sap. Therefore, I had about a 5x reduction to go, and I did this boiling on the stove for better control and oversight.
The burner went on high, the sap-syrup boiled, the kitchen filled the comforting smell of a weekend pancake breakfast. I opened my computer to work and kept an eye on the progress. The liquid level steadily retreated further from the pot’s rim. I stuck an instant thermometer into the liquid. 209.5F. Supposedly (last one), when the maple syrup is optimally finished, it will be boiling 7F above the boiling temperature of water.
(I used to know this stuff well. Here’s what I remember:
Boiling starts to take place when enough heat has been added to bring water to the temperature where liquid water is in phase equilibrium with gaseous water. This is about 212F. Add more heat energy and the liquid water will come to a rolling boil as the liquid turns to its gaseous state. Crank the stove to eleven and this phase change from liquid to gas will happen at an even greater rate. The liquid water, though, will still be around 212F.
Boil as hard as you want, the water temperature remains 212F. However, dissolve stuff in the water, and the phase equilibrium (boiling) temperature will rise. Higher concentration of dissolved stuff, higher boiling temperature. The more stuff you dissolve in the water, the higher the boiling temperature. The corollary to this is that you could also increase the boiling temperature by having a fixed amount of dissolved stuff and reducing the amount of water. That’s what we’re doing with maple syrup. There is sugar in the sap. As water boils, liquid turns to gas and leaves less and less liquid water in the pot. The sugars become concentrated in that liquid water. Eventually, the sugar-water solution has become concentrated enough in sugar to have an appreciably higher boiling temperature.)
On this day in this kitchen, water was boiling at 209.5F. The syrup would be done when the sugars had concentrated to the extent that the boiling temperature had risen to 216.5F. The sap boiled for hours outside on the wok and hours more inside on the stove, but the liquid temperature remained a steady 209.5F. Finally, in just the last few minutes of boiling, when the liquid had visibly thickened, the rise in temperature happened. 216.5F. Done! And delicious. Pancakes, coming up. But first, a cocktail – brandy old fashioned, Korbel of course, with Backyard Adventure Maple Syrup.