Maple Sugar Season - Foraged

There’s a certain spot in the wheel of the seasons somewhere between late winter and early spring when it almost feels as if the Earth has run out of momentum. Even on bright days the sun is too low and weak to radiate enough warmth to affect the land, frozen so deeply and for such a long time, that it seems winter will never end.  Finally there comes a spate of sunny warm days that cause the temperature to shoot above freezing just long enough to turn snow to water, frost to mud. 

Cabin-fever sufferers of all ages look for reasons to get out in the sun, to feel its warming rays on their skin and to try to make some vitamin D of their own. Children have to be reminded to take hats and gloves- the wind still howls, and every passing cloud is noticed with shivers. When the sun falls the same clear skies that let in the afternoon’s heat let it all back out again, what had melted freezes overnight. In the woods, blustery winds have long blown all but the most tenacious leaves to the ground- squirrel lay-ups and the remains of last spring’s bird nests cling to the bare skeletal twigs. If the buds of the trees are beginning to swell, it’s hard to tell. The exception is the optimistic maple tree- at the ends of its silvery branches,  visibly swollen reddish scales cover the maple’s developing flowers, keeping them safe from the deep-freezes of the season. 

The maple tree has developed characteristics that allow it to use the brief time period of seasonal transition when the days are warming but the nights still below freezing to benefit its reproduction and complete its life-cycle. First Nations people discovered, likely thousands of years ago, how to harvest some of the excess sap the tree has during this short season in a manner that doesn’t harm the tree and allowed them to share in this special bounty as well, thereby beginning the tradition of maple sugar season in North America.

In this series we’ll talk about the science behind why the sap flows and when, go into the history of the harvest and modern techniques, and then talk about how tapping a few maple trees in your yard is easier than you think and can be a rewarding way to enjoy one of the sweetest gifts of the forest. Read on to learn all of this, and how how to make maple syrup at home!

Delicious and fresh Maple Syrup ready for your favorite meal. Notice the rich and beautiful amber color of the liquid.

Maple Trees: More Than Just Syrup

We mentioned how the optimistic maple’s red colored twig-ends stand out in the otherwise bare woods. From these structures, reddish colored pom-pon like puffs will form in early spring. These flowers are primarily wind-pollinated, although bees will take advantage of the sweet pollen as well. Female flowers will then develop into the whirligig seeds, called “samaras”, that delight children and annoy gardeners every season. The samaras make an interesting spring foraged edible as well. Harvest the seeds by removing them from the winged husks early when they are plump, but before they get bitter. Try them raw to add crunch to a salad or cook them as if they were green beans, perhaps in a casserole dish, or roast them in a low-temp oven tossed in olive oil and sea-salt and a dash of chili powder for a snack! 

The maple tree flowers and starts to make seed before the tree unfurls the leaves it uses to photosynthesize energy from the sun, so it relies on the carbohydrates it created in previous seasons to fuel the process. Those carbohydrates are stored as starch in the wood. In spring, the tree converts these stored starches into sugars, and moves them into its sap. Another unique feature of the maple tree is that it’s ray cells, the xylem cells that run perpendicular to the growth rings like pipes that join them, are not filled with water as in many other trees, but with carbon-dioxide gas instead. The gas-filled areas get smaller when it is cold, then expand when it warms up. Overnight, when temperatures plummet, a negative pressure forms in the tree, when the sun warms it in the morning, it switches to positive pressure. This means that the tree is able to take advantage of rapid freezing and thawing cycles of the weather to create pressure which it uses the to draw the water up from the roots during times of negative pressure which it uses to super-charge the sap-stream, which will use positive pressure to carry the sugars that are being created from the stored starches to every bud. The pressure of a maple tree during the sap run is often as high as 40psi – which is higher than most passenger vehicle tires! Any broken twig or opening in the bark will flow with sap at this time. 

Maple sap starting to collect on the bark of a Maple tree.

A Brief History of Maple Syrup

Squirrels harvest the maple sugar by nibbling gashes in the bark of twigs just deep enough to puncture the layer of bark where the sap is flowing. Squirrels move through the trees they frequent doing this over and over again, establishing their own sugar run. When the temperature is below freezing, some of the water in the sap will be lost to evaporation as it freezes, concentrating the sugars and leaving behind just the sweetest part which the squirrels return to eat when the time is right. It’s likely that early people whose survival depended upon being keenly aware of the natural world around them observed the different seasonal characteristics of the maple trees and similar species. They most likely watched wildlife take advantage of the high-calorie and pleasant tasting food, and through trial and error over thousands of years devised the methods and traditions that European explorers documented when they first arrived in the 1500’s. 

By the time of European contact, sugaring had been an important part of the cultures of the First Nations People for countless generations. Different tribes had slightly different stories, traditions, and techniques, and maple sugar was widely traded to groups in areas where it wasn’t produced.  Maple Sugar would have been an important source of calories when it became a part of early people’s diets-it didn’t just improve the flavor of foods- it would have provided energy at the time of year when game sources were scarce and helped the very old and very young to live longer. There is evidence that a porridge-like food made mostly of hickory nut meat and sweetened by maple-sugar would have been a meal that sustained babies and elderly people (members of the population without teeth) and that the life expectancy of people would have greatly increased as the knowledge was adopted by the indigenous people of North America. Many First Nations people in eastern Canada return every year to the same groves in the sugar-bush that have been tapped by generations of ancestors. In some ways, maple sap is the very life-blood of the forest, flowing through generations of forest and people alike and co joining the two inextricably.¹

Indigenous woman collecting sap from a tap source. Photo Credt: Gwen Tuinman

The First Nation’s people collected sap by creating a series of shallow cuts in the bark of the tree to let the sap flow and used wood shingles to guide the flowing sap into vessels to collect it. The sap would be condensed sometimes by freezing the sap and removing the water layer when frozen, or by heating it in clay pots, or a combination of techniques. Once iron cookware was available, they used a series of iron pots over a fire to steam away the water, the syrup would move from pot to pot becoming closer to finished as it progressed, in an efficient assembly line. Once enough water has been removed the sugars in the sap become a thick syrup, and further heating by a few degrees allows it to be turned into sugar. The sugar would be allowed to cool into cakes and cone shapes in birch bark vessels, and in this way the sugar was easy to store, trade, transport, and use the rest of the year. When European colonists arrived on the continent, they began to collect the sap by drilling a small diameter hole and inserting a “spile” carved of a hollow wood like sumac, or made of metal as such became available. For much of the last  hundred years, the iconic long galvanized buckets with bent lids hanging from a hook on a metal spile is what a person thinks of when they think of how maple sap is collected. A horse-drawn sled or truck or tractor would go from tree to tree, collecting the sap from individual buckets daily and carrying them to the “Sugar Shack” where the water would be cooked away from the syrup over large fires. An “evaporator style” cooker was patented in the 1850’s which made the boiling off process more efficient, but for the next 200 years not much changed until the last few decades. 

The modern sugar bush of today looks quite different. In some cases the buckets of the past have been replaced by food-grade bags. Often times the bucket or bag has been eliminated entirely and plastic taps on each tree feed into ever-larger bundles of food-grade tubing as the sugar run snakes itself downhill. Sometimes vacuum pressure is used on the lines to keep them flowing, making the need to visit every tree daily obsolete. Many producers run their sap through a reverse-osmosis filter which removes a great deal of the water from the sap without the need of using so much heat energy. In finishing, heat is still used to help create the complex flavors of the syrup and improves the texture and color.

Through much of its history as a commodity, maple sugar was the end-product of the process until sugar made from cane became a widespread crop in warmer areas. Politics, fashions, protests, and taxes have all played their own role in the history of maple sugaring. Around the time of the American Civil War, it became popular to use maple sugar in abolitionist homes to signal protest against the system of slavery which was used to create cane sugar. As the Industrial Revolution brought sweeping changes to how and where people lived and worked, and taxation changes made cane sugar cheap and widespread, in some places maple sugar was called “country sugar” in a derisive way and looked down upon by consumers who would rather buy a loaf of commercial bread than bake their own. 

The maple sugar industry began to concentrate on reinventing itself post WW2, using advertising and distribution arrangements to make maple syrup over breakfast pancakes seen to be a must-have on every breakfast table, and to be available in every super market. The Maple Industry succeeded to the point that today most pancake syrup isn’t actually maple at all, it’s made of cheap corn syrup with caramel coloring and artificial maple flavoring added- although scientists are still fervently trying to discover exactly what compounds are responsible for the magical flavor of maple in the first place. In 2013 a compound called “Quebecol” was isolated from maple syrup and named after the region in Canada that produces most of the commercial maple syrup available today.

A 1940s ad for Maple Syrup and pancakes post WW2 era.

An Introduction to Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is a multi-million dollar industry- worth around $515 million in 2020. Like any multi-million industry that has reinvented itself to stay relevant and fought hard for its share of world markets, it can get incredibly complex.  Debates rage on the best materials, trees, timing, and nuances of technique. The purpose of this article isn’t to delve into all of those finer points, although there’s a large online community from hobbyist to small-scale commercial producers as well as numerous resources available from state and local co-operative extension groups and maple producers available to anyone interested in learning more. Online resources, how-tos, and newsgroups will help a newcomer to the tradition get started, and a quick internet search can help a person find all the tools they need to get started. Local farm supply stores sometimes carry sugaring supplies such as buckets and spiles as well.  In the next part of this article, we’ll talk about how a person with some time and trees on their hands can make their own maple syrup start to finish.

Tapping for Maple Syrup: Finding the Right Tree

It begins with the tree. Different types of maple trees have different sugar content. The Hard Maple (Acer saccharum) is also called the Sugar Maple because it has the highest sugar content in its sap, often as high as 3%. The other Maples sugar content is often less so more sap will be required to collect. In the descending order of sweetness are the Black Maple (Acer nigrum), Red Maple (Acer rubrum) and the Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) which often has the low end of 1.5% sugar. However don’t be discouraged if you don’t have access to a sugar maple- it will just take more sap and evaporation to get your sugar. Keep in mind that Boxelder is a type of maple that can be tapped and Birch, Alder, and Hickory can be tapped but the sugar content is much lower than from Maples. Birch in particular has a light sap sometimes made into a spring tonic type drink. Sycamore can also be tapped, and it is said to have a unique butterscotch like flavor.  

Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)
Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum)
Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum)

When choosing trees to tap keep in mind that you will have to empty your sap containers frequently, so a few big silver maples in your front or side yard may make a better candidate for your first try than a grove of sugar maple on the back 40. Any tree that is at least 12” in diameter at chest-level is big enough to tap. A general rule of thumb is that a second tap can be added once a tree is 20” in diameter and many people will add a third bucket to particularly large maple trees above 40” in diameter especially if that tree has multiple trunks. The output of maple trees is highly individualized and has a great deal to do with the placement of a particular tree- how much moisture it gets, and its exposure to the sun. 

A rule of thumb is that each tap will produce 10-20 gallons of sap during the season, which is usually around 4-6 weeks long. The caveat is that some days a tap may produce just a few quarts, other days it might pump out more than a gallon! A tree that is an especially good producer of sap is called a “Sap Cow.” Often times a large tree in the middle of the yard has little completion from other trees and gets lots of sunlight and water and is able to achieve “Sap Cow” status. For this reason urban and suburban trees shouldn’t be overlooked, don’t think that because you only have one or two maples you don’t have access to enough sap. A few taps on a couple of good sized trees can easily provide a few quarts or more of gourmet goodness by the end of the season. If tapping yard trees in the city, be sure that you are following all local rules and regulations and have proper permissions if needed. When tapping yard trees, aesthetics might be a greater concern than deeper in the woodlot- some hobbyists elect to invest in more traditional gear such as long galvanized buckets over plastic tubing and bags or buckets in high traffic areas.

Maple spile and bucket, ready for the flow.
Larger trees can have up to 3-4 spiles flowing at once.
Tap lines running downhill.
A valley of Maple trees that are being tapped for sap. Notice how the lines flow downhill.

Once you’ve decided upon your trees, you can use a cordless drill or a brace and bit to bore a hole the diameter of whatever type spile you have decided to use. The most ideal placement of a tap is either over a large root or under a large limb on the south side of the tree. The east side is the second most favorable orientation as the morning sun will warm it first. If a tree is large enough for more taps they should be spaced out around the circumference of the tree, avoiding areas that stay in the shade or get particularly cold if possible. Taps should be at least 6” to the side and a foot above or below previous drill holes. Look for a tell-tale belly-button scar over healed tap holes.  Drill the holes during a warmer period of the day, not when the wood is frozen in the morning.  Holes should be drilled at a slight upwards angle, generally 2”- 2 ½”  into the tree, examine the wood bits on the drill bit to be sure the wood is light colored and moist- if it is dark and dry there may be an area of unhealthy wood in that area. Different designs of spiles will have different specific recommendations for using them, however most designs require a hole about 7/8” in diameter or smaller. Things like bamboo, tubing, or pipe can be used or repurposed to tap the tree as long as they are food safe, non-toxic, and between a half inch and inch in diameter.  Avoid copper, which is harmful to the tree. Whatever spile design you use, it should be tapped in gently, not hammered with hard blows, which can damage the tree. Spiles usually only go far enough into the hole to be firmly seated- not the full depth of the drilled hole. Take into consideration the weight of the full bucket of sap when securing your collection container. In some old-fashioned systems the bucket is hung from a hook on the spout, newer plastic tubing systems may run to flat bag hanging on the tree at the tap point or to a larger food grade bucket on the ground. Re-purposed milk or vinegar jugs make a budget alternative, take care to secure your collection bucket against wildlife- squirrels sometimes raid sap buckets. Use a bleach solution to disinfect the containers you will be using. Sap can sour so empty your buckets daily and store the sap cold, either refrigerated or frozen, until you have enough sap and enough time to start boiling it off. Make preparations to assure you have storage plans for the raw sap when planning your sugaring, large coolers in a cold garage work well. 

How to Make Maple Syrup

Boiling the sap takes some time and many hobby-level enthusiasts elect to set aside at least one day a week during the sugar season to start to reduce their sap in order to keep up with the collected sap. One common mistake is to think that since you are just making a little bit of syrup or sugar that you can do the cooking-off process start to finish inside your home kitchen. There is simply too much water that needs to be evaporated from the sap to do it indoors… the sap is only about 2 percent sugar, which means it’s 98% water. 

Online there are many free sources for designs using cinder blocks arranged to create a very effective and inexpensive outdoor evaporator. Outdoor fish fry type stoves that attach to a propane bottle work well also.  Pans used to reduce the sap should be shallow with lots of surface area, but when you’re cooking the sap, the level shouldn’t get too low in the pan or it will get too hot, a depth of 1 ½” minimum is often recommended. Start with about 3” of sap and continue adding it as the level drops.  Foam will form on top of the sap that can be removed with something like a slotted spoon, some people add a sliver of a pat of butter or a few drops of vegetable oil to discourage the foaming.  The sap should be kept at as near to a full rolling boil as you can maintain without scorching. Many people will reduce the sap when they have time to tend a fire in their yard until it starts to noticeably appear darker and gets thicker but is still far too watery to be syrup and then store it in this form until the end of the season when it can all filtered, combined, and then cooked down to the 66% -67%consistency sugar content required to make perfect syrup. If the syrup isn’t finished enough, it will be too watery and susceptible to spoilage, if it’s reduced to a higher sugar percent than crystals will form in storage. To achieve this easily without special equipment, be sure that water boils at 212 degrees at your location, if it does not, adjust accordingly. 

Throughout most of the boiling-off process, your sap will boil around the same temperature as water does in your location. Maple sap will have the proper sugar percentage to become maple syrup when the boiling point of it becomes 219 degrees, at 7degrees above the boiling point of water. The syrup will develop more “sugar sand” again after it reaches 215 degrees, so many people will CAREFULLY filter it again at this point before returning it to the heat for a final reduction. The syrup is a very fickle creature as it moves through its final few degrees of transition- you will want to watch it very carefully. The bubbles will change and it will “sheet” off a lifted spoon when it becomes syrup. If maple syrup is your end goal, you can consider yourself done at this step when you reach 219 degrees and proceed to preserve your well-earned sweet liquid amber. Maple syrup can be put-up by putting it in canning jars and sterilizing them in a hot water bath to 180 degrees as you would jam or jelly, or if you prefer the syrup can be frozen for use throughout the year. If you have only a small amount of syrup or will be using it quickly and don’t take the steps to preserve the syrup or freeze it, it will last a few weeks under refrigeration. 

How to Make Maple Sugar

If your intention is to make maple sugar, you won’t need to worry about preserving your syrup, but you have a bit more work ahead of you. It takes about a cup of maple syrup to make a cup of maple sugar. The basic process is to further heat boiling maple syrup until it reaches 255 degrees. The process works best in a heavy pan that holds heat well like a thick-walled sauce pan and the pan should have enough space that the boiling syrup can easily expand at least three times its original volume. As the syrup reaches sugar stage take care NOT to stir it unless it’s necessary to do so to prevent a boil-over. Stirring the syrup before sugar stage will cause it to crystalize too early. In order to prevent a boil-over, use a pat of butter to make a ring about an inch above the level of the syrup when you start to boil it. If you do have to stir the pot and it hardens, add water and attempt it again with a bit lower heat. It will usually take about 15-20 minutes to raise the syrup to sugar temperature. 

Once the syrup is hot enough to reach sugar (255 degrees or the hard-ball stage, when drips from a soon start to form thick threads, it is removed from the heat. The mixture is then CAREFULLY (it will be dangerously hot!) stirred, and stirred, and stirred, and stirred… until it suddenly becomes grainy and then transforms as if by magic. If you don’t keep stirring until it turns to powder, it will harden in place. If you want you can pour it into cones of heavy wax paper or candy molds if you prefer the sugar in solid form when it first starts to appear creamy colored and let it set up. Another option, to save elbow grease is to use a stand mixer to stir the mixture until it cools. A few lumps will remain but they can be broken up and separated with a metal sieve or a flour sifter. Save the lumps to use as a topping for things like muffins and yogurt!  

A food processor can be used on cooled and sifted maple sugar to powder it further into the texture of confectioners’ sugar for icings.  Freezing the sugar in an air and moisture tight container with a moisture absorber for long term storage will provide you with maple sugar that you can use 1:1 exactly as you would cane sugar for special baking projects all year long.  

Homemade Maple Sugar cubes freshly cooled and formed for use in everyday meals or treats.

How to Make Maple Cream Butter

Maple Cream, also called Maple Butter, is a form of spreadable maple goodness accomplished by heating maple syrup over low to medium heat without stirring. It should take about 15 minutes to raise the syrup gently to the desired temperature of 235 degrees. The syrup is then immediately poured into another metal pot that has been waiting in an ice bath. Use a thermometer to wait for the syrup to cool to 100 degrees, and when it does remove it from the ice bath and stir it gently, do not try to whip air into the mixture or it will over harden later. Continue gently stirring until it’s glossy and silky and the texture is like a cream. It should hold stiff peaks if you lift it with the spoon. If you prefer to use a stand mixer, use a low speed and scrape the sides down frequently. It will take almost an half hour of stirring to reach the point of making maple cream- but once you’ve experienced it’s melt-in-your-texture and appreciated the subtle change in flavor from the syrup it started as, you will think it was worth every minute of stirring. 

Homemade Maple Cream makes a wonderful holiday gift that can hold its own with the fanciest holiday candies- imagine a chocolatey fudge with foraged hickory nuts and maple cream swirled throughout! If you’re making a large batch, be ready and have everything set up so that it can be spooned into jars quickly before it sets up. Maple Cream can reportedly last up to 6 months under refrigeration, but most batches seem to be eaten soon after creation or discovery!

Maple butter tart bars. One of the many delicious things you can make with homemade Maple butter.

How to Make Maple Syrup Taffy

No story about the magic of Maple Sugar season would be complete without mentioning one more form of maple goodness that has spawned its own tradition- “Sugar-on-Snow” also called “Wax Sugar” or “Maple Taffy.” In its most simple definition, Sugar-on-Snow is a kind of taffy made by pouring boiled Maple Syrup over fresh snow, but Sugar-on-Snow candy parties have long been a way for communities to gather as the end of a long winter is in sight to partake in the sweetness of the season while looking forward to spring. Since their inception during pioneer times, Sugar-on-Snow parties have evolved to feature specific food pairings and activities. Like a frosty Northern Mardi Gras, coffee and un-frosted donuts are traditional fare, as are pickled vegetables which serve to cut the sweetness of the maple candy. 

To prepare Sugar-on-Snow, maple syrup is simply heated to 234 degrees and then poured out onto fresh snow into long ribbons by the serving and a twig or popsicle stick is placed at one end and it’s wound up like a lollipop to enjoy.  It can also be fun to make Sugar-on-Snow at home while reducing your maple sap to syrup or sugar, and if you’ve been lucky enough to share the process with family and friends, a sugar-on-snow party can be a great way to sample the long-awaited seasonal sweetness. If the weather isn’t cooperating with fresh snow outside when it’s time to taste-test your hard-earned maple bounty, you can prepare it indoors, and substitute ice that has been powdered in a food processor or blender for snow. Sugar-on-Snow doesn’t need to be the culmination of a month of sap collecting, the next time the kids have a snow-day you can start a pan of sugar-on-snow and sneak in a science lesson about photosynthesis!  Sugar-on-Snow is a great treat to energize the adults through a day of snow removal and rounding up kids as well.

Maple Taffy, or Sugar-on-snow, is an age-old tradition and is a popular treat in many cultures.

In Conclusion

The process of making maple syrup or sugar is time consuming, and it probably won’t save you a lot of money. It tends to be sticky and is often times frustrating, although hopefully this guide will make it easier for beginners. Sugaring is intensely rewarding and people tend to plan to “do it better (or bigger!) next time” instead of saying “there won’t be a next time.” Once you have tasted something as personal and special as the home-grown sugar or syrup from your own trees, even store bought maple syrup suddenly isn’t the most delicious thing you have ever had.

The biggest problem is always that there’s never enough.

¹ Moore, Christopher R., and Victoria G. Dekle. “Hickory Nuts, Bulk Processing and the Advent of Early Horticultural Economies in Eastern North America.” World Archaeology, vol. 42, no. 4, Taylor & Francis, Ltd., 2010, pp. 595–608, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20799451

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