While spring is officially here, gardening and food
production is still weeks to months away for most of us in Illinois; unless you are a full-time entrepreneurial farmer or part of the King family… for my father and I its maple syrup production time.
Making maple syrup from scratch isn’t really hard, it just takes time and some relatively inexpensive special equipment. Its also a great way to reconnect with the land and to develop your own source of a local natural sweetener that is not dependent on exploitative plantation agriculture (sugar cane) or genetically engineered plants (beet sugar). Maple syrup is also a healthier alternative to traditional refined sugars; it’s still mostly sugar so it’s not really a health food, but it does contain minerals and antioxidants unlike refined sugars. And well best of all, nothing tastes better than homemade maple syrup cooked over a wood fire.
My parents live on the Northwest side of Springfield on a couple acres that are both covered and surrounded by forest that long ago during Abraham Lincoln’s time were known as the “Westwoods.” Where my parents live and I grew up, the forest is dominated by sugar maple trees, the ideal candidate for collecting sap to make syrup. You can actually make syrup from any maple tree but sugar maples are the best because they have the highest sugar content in their sap - hence the name. Sap is made into syrup by boiling off the excess water; it takes about 40 gallons of sap to create just one gallon of syrup. That’s a lot of boiling so starting with a higher sugar content sap is ideal.
Making maple syrup out of sap collected from sugar maples really begins the year before when the trees still have leaves on them. Why you might say? Quite simply to identify and mark the proper trees. When it comes time to tap your trees, to start collecting syrup, the trees are bare without leaves, making identification very difficult for anyone except a trained expert, so its prudent to identify and mark the trees you plan to tap before the leaves fall. Next step is tapping the trees and collecting sap.
Tree tapping and sap collecting generally begins in late February to early March, when daytime temperatures rise above 32 degrees fahrenheit and night time temperatures dip below 32, causing the sap to flow. All that is needed to start a maple syrup making adventure is the right sized drill bit, spouts known as spiles, and buckets (we use old apple cider/milk jugs). Then once the temperatures start hitting the “sweet spot” (pun intended), one can start collecting sap.
It’s best to have some sort of repository to hold the sap after it’s been collected from the trees. My dad and I have repurposed an old 55 gallon drum made from food grade plastic for storing the sap as it is collected. We usually tap about 5 trees to collect sap from (this year we collected about 30 gallons of sap) and once the flow begins to taper off as temperature rise above that “sweet spot,” we stop collecting and move on to boiling, which here in central Illinois is usually around mid to late March
This year it was the last weekend in March when my father got out the kettles and built the makeshift cinder block fireplaces we use every year to boil down the sap. Boiling off enough water to concentrate the sugars in the sap down into maple syrup is an all weekend affair.
I have read places before that mention tubing of some kind to vent the smoke up so as to not give the syrup a smoky flavor, which for the life of me I can’t imagine why someone would suggest that. The smoky flavor our syrup gets from not venting off the smoke gives it a deliciously unique flavor reminiscent of high quality whiskey.
Once we have boiled off a majority of the excess water the process moves indoors to the kitchen stove where the final boiling can take place in a more controlled environment. From there we “bottle” it in clean and sanitized mason jars, followed by the obligatory pancake breakfast/brunch.
You can learn more about the various steps and equipment needed tap trees, collect sap and make syrup by clicking here.And if you don't have a stand of maple trees to make your own syrup, no worries, you can purchase syrup made from central Illinois maple trees from our friends at Funks Grove!