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In The Country

How Sweet It Is!

Kay Deardorff
Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve

(Feb, 2012) Whatís sweet, all natural, and only available fresh from the trees for a short period of time in late winter and early spring? Maple syrup! Starting in late winter, the days grow warmer while the nights remain chilly. This fluctuation sends sap running in the maple trees. Warm sunny days, 40+ ̊F, and cold nights, 20̊F, are ideal for sap flow. Sugaring season usually starts in mid February and may last 4 to 8 weeks, depending on weather conditions. The harvest season ends with the arrival of warm spring nights and early bud development in the trees.

Remember when you are searching for a tree to tap, the industry standard regarding the size of the tree is 10 inches in diameter. You may want to increase that size when doing your own backyard tap, just to ensure good quality and maintain low risk to the tree. When a healthy, correctly sized tree is chosen, no permanent damage is done to it. Of course, it is important to properly tap the tree as well. At Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve, we will teach those attending our Maple Sugaring programs how to do the procedure accurately. We will give you a "taste" of the methods used and the end product so you will be able to locate and tap your own backyard maple trees.

Tapping the trees consists of drilling a 7/16" hole 1Ĺ to 2" deep and inserting a plastic, wood, or steel spile. Sap can either be collected in the traditional method using metal buckets, or it can be collected using plastic tubing or 1 gallon jugs. This tubing can be connected to the plastic taps. When tubing is used, a vacuum pump can be connected to the tubing to improve sap collections on cloudy days. The metal taps have a small hook, from which a bucket may be hung. Tapping extracts only about 10% of the sap produced by a tree each year. Each tap yields an average of 10 gallons of sap per season: that yields about one quart of syrup. 30-55 gallons of sap are evaporated to make one gallon of syrup.

The sugar shack is where the sap is boiled into maple syrup in an evaporator. Sap breaks down quickly, and so it must be boiled into syrup the same day it is collected. Evaporation that is too fast or too slow can affect the color and the flavor of the syrup. A thermometer is used to know when it is finished. The syrup is finished when it is exactly 4 degrees above the boiling point of water, which is 212̊ F.

Maple syrup is heated even further to produce maple cream, maple sugar and maple candy. It takes one gallon of syrup to produce eight pounds of candy or maple sugar. A gallon of pure maple syrup weighs 11 pounds. The sugar content of sap averages 2.5%, of the 66.5% for syrup.

But how would you find that perfect tree for the best results? Here are some facts to look for when searching for the best producer. Sugar maples have the highest of all maple trees. In the summer and fall you can identify the tree by its leaves that are 3-5 inches wide; 5-lobed; bright green upper surface and a paler green lower surface. In the winter look at the bark of a sugar maple which is smooth and gray on young trees up to 4-8 inches. Older trees have developed furrows and ultimately long, irregular, thick vertical plates that appear to peal from the trunk in a vertical direction, but are in fact very strongly attached.

Black maple trees are also used even though the sugar content is less than the sugar maple. Find them by noting the similar leaf, but usually 3-lobed and is thicker. It often appears to be drooping. Likewise, the bark is similar to the sugar maple, but usually darker and more deeply grooved or furrowed.

If no sugar or black maples are available, you might locate a red maple. Its 2Ė6 inch wide leaves are 3-lobed. There are small sharp teeth along the margin and mature leaves have a whitish appearance underneath. Young trees have a smooth, light gray bark when they are only 4Ė8 inches in diameter. When they have reached the mature size for tapping they will have gray or black ridges and ultimately narrow scaly plates.

Finally, you may find silver maple trees to produce the sap you need for maple syrup. However more work will be involved with the collection of the sap as well as more time in the evaporation process since the sugar content in the sap is much lower than the sugar maple trees.

Every year, Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve, near Fairfield, presents the only maple sugaring program in the region that allows participants to have a hands-on experience with all facets of the sugaring process. During this 90-minute program, attendees learn the history of maple sugaring and then are led to the forest where they select a tree, drill into in, hang a sap bucket, collect sap and watch fresh sap being cooked down into syrup before their very eyes. As soon as the syrup is ready, participants have a chance to taste the finished product.

Strawberry Hill owns a hobbyist sap evaporator which is a smaller version of the professional version that produces syrup so delicious, so sweet, that you wonít believe itís the same product thatís usually purchased in a grocery store. Your taste buds will rejoice and beg for more of this tasty treat! Strawberry Hill demonstrates the boiling process to school classes, home schools, organized groups, Boy and Girl Scout troops, and the general public.

The program is suitable for all ages. Itís educational, itís fun, itís a wholesome family activity and itís good exercise. After participating in the program, participants will have all the knowledge needed to do sugaring on their own in their back yard. There will also be maple syrup for sale as well as maple collecting kits.

When signing up for a program at Strawberry Hill, you will want to come to enjoy a pancake breakfast on February 25th and March 3rd at Camp Eder, located just 1 mile down the road from the Preserve. Enjoy as many pancakes as you can eat, then visit Strawberry Hill for the program. Call ahead to coordinate your visits. Come out and experience the magic of the maple trees this winter. Itís an experience you wonít soon forget!

For your culinary delight, below is a copy of a recipe you may want to try after you have done all the work gathering the sap from those marvelous maples.

MAPLE SYRUP COOKIES

  • 1/2 c. maple syrup
  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 tbsp. milk
  • 1 c. flour
  • 1 tsp. cream of tartar
  • 3/4 c. chopped nuts

Melt butter and add maple syrup, beaten egg and milk. Sift baking soda, flour and cream of tartar into maple mixture and mix thoroughly. Add chopped nuts. Drop onto a greased cookie sheet and bake in a 400 degree oven for 10 minutes. Makes about 2 dozen cookies.

Read other articles by Kay Deardorff