On a recent trip to my local country hardware store, I noticed that the maple syrup tapping supplies have come to the shelves. For those of us who strive to be as self reliant as possible, tapping a few maple trees can be a great way to put up some sugar. Maple syrup is a fantastic sugar replacement when baking, not to mention a fantastic treat on pancakes or ice cream.
The process of tapping trees & boiling down the sap really isn't that hard. The real issue is the volume of sap needed to get to useable syrup. The average tree will produce you enough sap to make about a pint or so of syrup during the entire season. Trees with a diameter of less than 10 inches should not be tapped and those with a diameter of more than 16 inches can be tapped twice. Many maple producers now advocate no more than 2 taps per tree, although very large maples were regularly taped as many as 4 times in the past.
The actual taps are relatively inexpensive. I recommend metal taps as opposed to the new plastic types for durability. Metal taps with a good enough quality for the average home producer can be found for less than $2.00. I would suggest tapping at least a dozen trees to make it worth while. Of course, I would also suggest buying more taps than you use to have some spares on hand for future tapping of more trees or replacement of broken taps.
To tap a tree, simply drill a 5/16" hole about 2" deep at an ever so slightly upward angle, at about 2' from the ground. Next, lightly pound your tap into the hole with the spout out and downward. After that, hang a bucket on the hook that is attached to the tap, cover and wait for the sap to pour out. Actually, it doesn't pour, but drips. A 2 gallon bucket may take about a day to fill, faster if the conditions are perfect. You can buy sap buckets where you bought the taps, but I like to use 2 gallon buckets that I get from the local grocery store bakery. I simply cut a hole in the lid for the sap to drip into and hang it on the hook.
Tap your trees in the spring when the temperatures hit 5 or 6 deg. cel. in the day and below freezing at night. Daily make the tour of your tapped trees to collect the sap into one or more 5 gallon buckets. Next will be the boiling down process, which although simple enough, there are a few things you need to watch out for.
You will need a pot large enough to boil in. You can also purchase a boiling pan, but any stock pot not made of aluminum will do. Next, add heat, lots and lots of gentle heat over a long period of time. Boiling your sap into syrup will take several hours. The first few hours, you are only boiling off water, so not much attention is needed. After the water is nearly gone however, you need to start paying attention a bit more. A thick, white foam will appear on the surface which must be skimmed off a discarded. At this point, your syrup may have a tendancy to boil up or even over. To avoid this, you can lower the heat a bit or add a drop of cream. Keep a candy thermometer in the syrup and when it hits 219 deg.F...voila! For those of us at higher altitudes, add 1 deg. for every 500ft. above sea level. Be careful not to over boil your syrup, boiling too long can quickly spoil your batch. Better to under do it a bit than over do it.
Pouring hot syrup into hot, sterilized mason jars and sealing them should keep your syrup for many months. You can use maple syrup in baking breads, muffins, and all sorts of recipes, thus reducing your dependancy on store bought, refined sugar.