Like all good things, maple syrup comes with patience, time and honest work. It begins with a few hesitant drops of translucent sap that gather and shimmer on the end of the spout. Then, when the earth hovers at just the right angle and conditions are perfect, the steady plink, plink, plink of that precious liquid culminates in an ancient ritual.
The Source of the Sap
Of the roughly 115 species of maple trees (Acer spp.) scattered over the Northern Hemisphere, 13 are native to North America. Nine thrive in northeastern regions, two in the Rockies, and two on the Pacific coast. All maples produce sweet sap, but the sugar maple (Acer saccharum), also known as hard maple or rock maple, yields by far the best sap. Silver maple (A. saccharinum), black maple (A. saccharum) and red maple (A. rubrum) trees follow closely in sweet sap production.
Maple trees are deciduous, with beautiful red/orange and yellow leaves in the autumn. Sugar maples can live up to 400 years, and most reach their top height of 80 to 90 feet at about 150 years, though some grow as tall as 130 feet. It takes about 40 years for a tree to grow big enough to support a tap—a 10-inch girth is considered the minimum size for one tap.
The species requires moist, rich, well-drained soil for best development. Flowers appear at the same time as, or shortly after, the leaves begin to unfold. The fruit consists of samaras, or terminally winged seeds, often called keys, joined together at their seedpods.
Maple: A Legend in its Own Time
Maple sugar was among the most used and cherished foods by the original inhabitants of the New World. Every Northeastern American tribe has a variation on the same story of maple sap’s creation: In the beginning of time, thick, sweet maple syrup flowed freely from maple trees, but the first wise Indian chief, knowing that humans only value that which comes through effort, climbed to the top of the magic tree and poured water down over it to dilute the syrup, making distillation necessary.
Like many discoveries, maple sugar from sap probably was the result of chance. No actual descriptions exist of how the Indians first learned to tap and distill sweet water from maple trees, but written descriptions from as early as 1555 explain how fire-heated stones were thrown into birch-bark cooking vessels to boil water out of the sap. Another early method was less tedious: Sap was left overnight in wooden or bark troughs to freeze. The frozen water then could be lifted off, leaving a concentrated sugary liquid.
Maple sugar was so important a part of North American native cuisine and culture that a moon cycle was named for it. Ojibwa people called this time iskigamizige-giizis, meaning “sugar bush moon,” and it signaled the spring trek away from winter’s camp into the sugar bush, as well as the intensive labor and festivities that accompanied the sap harvest.
Naturally Sweet, Naturally Nutritious
Maple sap and its sweet products — syrup, sugar and candy — are distinctly North American. At times, North American Indians lived solely on maple sugar, preferring it to salt as a staple, and fresh sap was used as a cooking liquid. Throughout the year, Indians made stews using maple syrup or sugar mixed with ground corn, chestnuts, beans, berries and meat.
By tapping into nature’s candy store, the North American natives found a rich source of energy far more nutritious than European cane sugar. Pure maple syrup consists primarily of sugars and, at standard density, its caloric content is 40 calories per tablespoon. Other chemical components include amino acids, proteins, organic acids and trace levels of vitamins. In addition, researchers have discovered large amounts of mineral material in maple syrup, predominantly potassium and calcium. Maple sugar contains no fat and one-quarter cup provides 25 percent of the recommended daily intake of riboflavin, 15 percent of manganese, 5 percent of potassium and 4 percent of zinc, calcium and magnesium.
Herbalists use a decoction of maple leaves and bark to strengthen the liver, open obstructions of the liver and spleen, as an astringent, and as an emetic or expectorant. Associated with long life and abundance, maple syrup is considered a liver tonic and kidney cleanser; it also is used as a base for medicinal herb syrups.
Perfect conditions for sap flow occur when freezing nights are followed by days with temperatures above 45 degrees. As long as the nights dip below freezing and the days stay warm, the sap will run for a few days to weeks.
Making the Syrup
It takes 40 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup. Maple sap is 90 percent water, which must be evaporated until the concentration of sugar is 66 to 67 percent. With less water, sugar crystals will form.
For 500 years or more, techniques and materials for syrup-making changed very little. Europeans introduced cast-iron boiling pots around the year 1700, but not until the middle of the 20th century did technology offer faster, easier ways to tap, gather and boil maple sap.
While there still are small producers who tap and collect sap by hand, most producers have invested in at least some modern equipment. The major producers and cooperatives embrace the latest technology that favors plastic tubing, pumps, reverse osmosis and automatic evaporators that regulate the boiling steps until syrup is achieved.
Regardless of the sophistication of equipment used, the three basic steps to making maple syrup remain. For people who are fascinated by the maple mystique, here are the basics to getting started:
Step 1: Tapping
Tap only trees whose trunks are at least 10 inches around at a height of 4 1/2 feet from the ground. Tap on warm days, using an electric drill to bore a slightly upward-angled hole at a convenient height for hanging buckets. Use a 7/16-inch drill bit and drill no more than 1 1/2 inches deep. Bore more than 2 feet from last year’s taphole.
Tap the aluminum spout or spile into the hole. Hang a bucket on the hook of the spile.
Step 2: Collecting
Once the sap is flowing, check the buckets regularly and empty the small buckets into a larger, portable container. Store sap in large vats in a cool, dark area. Do not leave sap in the collection buckets or storage tanks, especially in warm weather. Because of its sugar content, sap is an excellent breeding ground for bacteria. Sap keeps well if frozen.
Step 3: Boiling
Use a large copper or iron pot, stainless steel evaporating pans or a commercial evaporator to boil away the water. Do not attempt to boil sap indoors — the steam carries sugar that coats walls and ceiling. Use wood, gas or electricity to keep the pan at steady boiling temperature for a long period of time.
Fill the pan with sap, allowing lots of headspace for boiling. As the sap boils down, keep adding more so the sap in the pan stays above two inches. It will take a lot of sap to make syrup. The syrup is done when the temperature reaches 7.1 degrees above the boiling point of water. Measure the boiling temperature of water at your elevation ahead of time so you know when the syrup has reached the critical stage.
Filter finished syrup through several layers of cheesecloth before filling sterilized jars. Refrigerate for 2 months or freeze up to a year. Clean equipment with hot water and a solution of 1 part chlorine to 20 parts water (never soap or detergent because they leave a residue).
Go for the Gold
Real maple syrup is both complex and subtle, with a distinct flavor that is earthy and smoky, with caramel and fruit undertones. Do not confuse it with flat, salty-sweet maple-flavored corn syrup imitations. Substitute equal amounts of maple syrup for molasses, honey or corn syrup in recipes. When replacing sugar with maple syrup, decrease the other liquids in the recipe by two tablespoons per cup of maple syrup.
Maple syrup combines nicely with herbs such as ginger, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, chiles, sage, tarragon and the lemon herbs, such as lemon verbena and lemongrass.
Culinary herbalist, photographer, writer and lecturer Pat Crocker feeds her sweet tooth with locally made maple syrup. She is the author of several award-winning books including The Healing Herbs Cookbook.