I am new to the survival mindset and I am a person that loves to make desserts for my family. My first reaction to some of the articles I have read was how would I continue to make the treats that they enjoy after TEOTWAWKI? Then I realized there would be a way by making maple syrup. This is a family tradition that has continued in our family from two previous generations. After taking a survey, my oldest son realized many people do not know how to make maple syrup and that is what has led me to write this article.
Identifying Sugar Maples
The first step is to be able to identify a sugar maple. A sugar maple will have a light gray to brown bark. Examine the shape of the leaf in between the points. Sugar maples have three to five lobes and are U-shaped between its points. If there are no leaves on the tree, look around and see if you can find an old one on the ground to help you identify the tree. Sugar maples contain about 3% sugar which means less boiling and better syrup. The sap usually starts to run in the trees around the middle to end of February here in the Midwest. The sap flow is the best on warm, above- freezing days after below-freezing nights. The warm sun on the tree will make the sap run.
Make a Spile
After you identify your sugar maple tree and determine when the sap is running, your next step will be to make a spile. My grandpa always used sumac wood. It has a soft center and is easy to carve. The spile needs to be about six inches long, ¾ inch to 1 inch diameter. Use a knife to taper one end of the spile down to ½ inch. Carve away the top ½ for ½ the length. Do not carve away below the dark heart wood Use a piece of straight #9 wire in a drill to clean the heart out of the un-carved portion of the spile. Now remove the heart, this is your trough. You can purchase spiles but it is easier to make your own so that you can get the right size for your hole that you drill.
Tapping a Tree
You will use a drill to make a hole on the south side of the tree, about three to five feet from the base. Drill directly over a large root or below a large healthy limb. You can go higher, and this will eliminate animals from tipping over the sap container. We use a 5/8 inch diameter auger bit and drill into the tree. Drill hole slightly uphill and make sure you remove any shavings. After the hole is drilled, insert the spile. Use a hammer to drive the tapered end of the spile into the 5/8 inch hole. Insert a nail above the spile to hang the bucket or gallon plastic milk jugs. Remove the spile at the end of the sugaring season. The hole will be healed over by the next year. Tap in a different place each year so the tree has time to heal.
How to Cook the Syrup
It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup. Collect the sap from your containers daily. You should boil down the sap within a day or two of collecting it if not the same day you collect it. The fresher the sap, the better the taste, and you don’t want it to sit too long or it will spoil. When you have 30-40 gallons you are ready to start cooking it down. You need to strain the sap before you cook it. You can use cheesecloth or a white flour sack dish towel. This eliminates any dirt, debris, or critters that might have fallen into your sap.
We put the sap in a 50 gallon kettle to cook it down. You can cook it over a log fire or use propane if it is available. The key is to have a slow and steady fire because it takes 8-10 hours to cook it down. We start the process outside because of the amount of steam that comes from the cooking. It makes a mess in the kitchen. After the sap cooks down, we take it inside to finish cooking it off. The sap will become darker and thicker as it cooks down. It’s a good idea to stir frequently so it does not scorch. We use a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature. When it reaches seven degrees above the boiling temperature of water at your altitude, it is finished. If you cook it 25-27 degrees above the boiling temperature of water you will have maple cream and you can whip it. If you cook it 30-33 degrees above the boiling temperature of water it will crystallize and become maple sugar. This will happen very quickly! You have to move fast or you will have a huge mess. The maple sugar can be used like brown sugar to sweeten things like cookies, cakes, or other treats.
How to Can It
After the sap has cooked down to syrup, you may use it or can it. Put the syrup in clean, pint jars. Place the lids and rings in boiling water for 3 minutes. Place lids on jars, wipe off the edge, and then screw on the rings. Put jars in large canning kettle. Pour hot water over the jars, enough to cover them. Bring to a boil, put lid on, and process for ten minutes. Remove jars and let sit until lids pop [down].
Ideas for Using Maple Syrup
Everyone knows that maple syrup can be used on rice, grits, pancakes, or waffles. Pour over snow for a tasty treat. Use your imagination for using either the syrup or the sugar. Pour a small amount into your baked beans or over a baked sweet potato. Try it in homemade granola. One of my favorites is to drizzle it over baked apples. Used as a topping, sauce, dressing, or marinade the possibilities are endless. Maple syrup is versatile in its uses.
Maple syrup making has been a tradition in our family for two previous generations. It does take some time, but the end product is worth it. My family will be able to enjoy the tasty treats after TEOTWAWKI because of nature’s sweetener from your backyard.