Sunday, February 5, 2012

I Do Not Like This, Sam I Am

Today was S-day.  Sap-o-rama.  And it was a trial, plain and simple.  The total in the basement from the last 5 days of collection was 13 1/2 gallons of sap.  I was out of space to put all of it.  I had even press-ganged the honey bucket (with the honey gate) into holding sap, as I ran out of gallon jugs long ago.  That meant it was time to process, and today was the day.

I started out with such high hopes.  Images of Little House in the Big Woods filled my head.  Did you ever read that book?  I've read it hundreds of times, I think.  I find it comforting.  The part with Grandpa Ingalls and the big kettle in the woods, boiling maple syrup played in my head.  I went out figuring, if Grandpa could do this over a big ol' fire, then hey, I can do it over a big ol' fire.

Not having two big trees to hang a kettle from (nor a kettle), I resorted to a modern remedy--old rebar.  There was an old, crooked piece in the woods, left by someone at sometime.  I'd tripped over it many a time, so I knew where it was.  I dragged it out, and my husband cut it into two long lengths.  The plan was to put these lengths over the fire pit we'd dug in the fall, prop it on the rocks that surrounded it, and put the pans I'd bought for the occasion over the fire on them.  In this case, the pans were two heavy-duty foil roasters.  I figured with all that surface area, the sap would evaporate quickly and syrup would  be quick to follow.

This is what it looked like:

The two pans were there for a reason.  One was to boil down into syrup, and the other was to heat the sap, so when the first pan started to evaporate and there was less in it, I could take warm sap from the other pan and not stop the boil.  But it never boiled, because it was too far away from the fire.  However, it was evaporating all right, and then my son tripped over the rebar on the side of the pit and knocked all the sap into the fire.  Yeay.  So I took the rebar out, my husband straightened it, and we tried again.  Now it looked like this:

Much closer to the fire this time, and actually, it did boil.

But not for long.  It had taken 3 hours to get the sap to boil at all, and it would only hold for 5 minutes at a time and go back to a nice simmer.  I quickly discovered that getting the sap to boil consistently was nearly impossible.  The fire would not cooperate--the wind would blow the flames every which way, and the boil would stop.  The wood was being burnt at a rapid pace, and when it got too little, the boil would stop.  Being as though the pan was so close to the fire, I couldn't really put heaps of wood on it, so I was feeding it little bits at a time constantly.  This was extremely labor intensive.  I started the process at 9 in the morning, and it was 1 o'clock.  I had made no progress other than getting the last batch of sap to turn the lightest of yellows.  My son had tripped and spilled the sap, and I had knocked it all into the fire twice while adding wood.  This was not working.  Grandpa Ingalls was obviously magical.

I had had it.  I couldn't keep the boil, the smoke kept getting in my eyes no matter where I went around the pit, I was cold, I was damp from the ground, I was filthy and stinky and I had burnt most of my fingers.  I know when I'm licked.  But I didn't want to work all this time without anything to show for it.  Besides, I had ALL that sap in the basement, just waiting for me.  So I went another route; the barbeque.  This worked slightly better.  The boil was faster, but it wasn't constant enough.

Again, I used the two pan setup.  The frying pan was for the "hard" boil, and the roaster on the other side was for the warming up of the sap that would be added.  The wood you see was to stop that lovely wind from blowing the flame about, which it did anyway. 

Again, boiling constantly eluded me.  I'd get a nice simmer, and sometimes a bit of a boil, but it wasn't going to do it.  To get any progress, it would have to boil, hard and constantly, and it was just not happening.  I spent an hour fiddling with it, and gave up.  I took the sap inside.

At two o'clock, after fighting playing with the sap for 5 hours, I poured it in a pot, put it on the stove, and cranked it up.  And it boiled.  And boiled and boiled.  The sap had to be filtered many times before I did this, as the wind blew ash and dirt and bugs into the sap all day long as I fiddled with it.  Very genuine and out-of-doorsy, but not so good to eat.  So filter it I did (through coffee filters--many coffee filters) and then onto the stove it went to boil.  Three and a half hours later, there was syrup.

This is 1 1/2 cups of syrup from what I believe is 4 1/2 gallons of sap.  We used a total of 6 1/2 gallons today, and spilled a lot of it, so this is the left over from that.  I have 7 gallons left in the basement.  I've heard that 10 gallons of sap makes one quart of syrup, so I think that is about right.  I'll be honest, though, I lost track after it spilled the second time.  By the time it spilled the third time, I was just pouring the sap in willy nilly, not even paying any attention to which gallon I was up to.  So it is what it is.  A cup and a half of syrup.

Was it worth it? Yeah-ish?  Is that an answer?  It is unbelievably good, that's for sure.  It's thick (I probably went a little too far with the boil, but oh well), it's rich, and it tastes like sweet, sweet trees.  It's complex and wonderful.  On the other hand, it took me 8 and a half hours to get 1 1/2 cups of syrup.  That's just ridiculous. 

There has GOT to be an easier way.  While the smoke was blowing in my face for the umpteenth time this morning, I kept thinking turkey fryer, turkey fryer.  I think that might work.  Will it be faster?   I don't think so.  This doesn't seem to be a quick process.  Will it be less frustrating?  I hope so. 

So stay tuned.  I again have 10 gallons of sap, because today I collected 3 more, so I've got a lot more boiling to do.  I think for now it'll be done in the house a little at a time, with the windows wide open and the vent fan on.  If you've ever done this yourself and can give me pointers on the boiling, please feel free.  I am open to suggestion. 
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  1. Don't give up! Sugaring can be a long process, but so worth it! Last year we got 7 1/2 gallons, from only 25 taps, and some of the tees are soft maples, which don't have the sugar content of hard maple, so it takes even more sap. But I don't shy away from using syrup in my baking, etc. like when we bought it. And there is no comparison in flavor. I love our smoky flavored syrup! Hang in there!
    Blessings, Kelly

  2. I have heard that boiling it inside leaves sticky-grimy-soot everywhere... did that happen to you?

  3. Nobody better waste a drop of that hard earned syrup! Maybe you should go find out how your neighbor does it?

  4. Our first year we boiled sap on an open fire. It took many days and we lost a big roasting pan full just as it finally got to the syrup stage because we weren't watching closely enough and it scorched. Aargh! We have silver maples, no sugar maples, and the ratio is 60 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, so that's a lot of work to lose. Also, it was really smoky - more smoky than we really like.

    Friends told us they use a turkey fryer, but the downside is that there is not as much surface area. The second year I found a "fish boil" system, similar to the turkey fryer, but with a big deep rectangular pan with a cover. I put it right on the patio and can keep an eye on it through the kitchen window and easily run out to add sap. I set the cover atop the pan cross-wise to help hold in the heat; I don't think it really slows down the evaporation.It takes us about one tank of LP gas to boil down one gallon of syrup last year, so it isn't really frugal, but that's not exactly the point. The silver maple syrup is light and vanilla-y --incomparably wonderful. If you are using sugar maple sap, it should take about half as much LP and perhaps half as much time.

    Last year, I found an induction cookplate on clearance at a discount place that I also tried for boiling the syrup. It is electric but boils water very fast without using much electricity. It worked well,but the pan for it didn't have much capacity, so I used it to supplement the fish-boil system. (You can see some photos on my blog - click on the "maple syrup" label.)

    One warning--someone told me they boiled their sap down on their kitchen stove and all the wallpaper curled up and fell off the walls!

  5. Very interesting post! We adore Little House in the Big Woods as well as maple syrup. If we had some trees, we'd be trying this too! Good for you for giving it a go.

    Good info in the comments too. I'd encourage you to try this again next year too. Chalk this year up to learning. It's got to get easier! And maple syrup is oh so worth it(?)

  6. Yes, I usually chalk a lot of things up to learning experiences! lol! But there is lots of good info here! Thanks!

  7. Oh why oh why dont I have some maple trees handy? We make our own jams & jellies but syrup too! I hadnt even thought of that!Although, with all the hoops you jumped through would have killed me!

    This was a delightful story and I look forward to reading more on this adventure you are on.

  8. Two words for you...rocket stove! Google it. Let me know what you think. Love your posts. Thanks.


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