Keep it Clean - Wash everything well, before you get started– the pot for boiling, the taps, the collecting bags or buckets, and storage containers. Rinse it all with a dilution of 20 parts water to 1 part unscented household Clorox, then rinse with water to get rid of the bleach odor.
TAP Some Trees – you need maple sap to make maple syrup.
o Identify the tree! First, make sure it is a sugar maple. When there isn’t foliage on the trees, you might not remember. A soft maple buds up sooner than a hard maple, and while it will produce sap, the taste can be "buddy" or funny tasting, and throw the whole batch of syrup into the unusable category. So, know your trees.
o Tree size and number of taps – Conservationists say that you should not tap a tree with a trunk that is less than 10” in diameter, or else you can do damage to the tree. And, remember that you can’t use a tree for lumber, at least below the level of the tap, once you tap it. A tree that is 18” can accommodate a second tap, and a tree that is at least 26” can have three taps on it.
o Drilling and installing the tap- Use a hand drill or a battery powered drill with a 7/16” drill bit for drilling wood. This is the size that best matches the thickness of the tap or spile. Place the bit, secured in the drill, next to the metal tap, or spile, and measure the length of the tap that goes into the tree - about 1.5 to 2 inches. Place a piece of tape on the drill bit to mark the depth to drill. Drill the hole in the tree at a height where you will have room for the hanging sap bag or pail, or tubing, usually 2-6 feet from the ground. You should drill straight in, or at a slight downward angle. This will allow the sap to flow out by gravity, but will allow your bucket or sap bag to stay on the spile. If you tapped the tree last year, don’t drill the hole directly above or below or within a few inches of the old hole. Use a hammer to gently drive the tap in, but be careful not to drive it in too deep and split the tree.
o Knowing when to stop – sometimes when the weather warms and the trees start to bud up, the sap will have an off taste. Some people say it is “buddy”. If you start to get an off flavor, throw the sap out – it will not produce good syrup.
You Gotta Have Sap - you have to collect and store the sap in order to turn it into syrup
o Collecting - You can use a bucket, a gallon milk container, a handle and sap bag, or tubing to collect the sap. Simply hang or install one of these on the tap. Make sure the container is covered to keep anything other than sap out. Check on the containers to avoid having them overflow. To put a sap bag on the handle, fold the bag down a couple of times, and secure the folds in the inside lip, and press down on the rim. Be careful not to cut yourself on the handle's sharp galvanized metal.
o Storing - Store the sap in a food grade container until you are ready to boil. Sap will sour like milk if not kept cold and if you keep it too many days. Throw this sap out. If it is cloudy, don’t use it. Make sure your sap storage container is kept in a cold place outside, like a snow bank on the north side of your house.
Let It Boil – you have to boil the sap for awhile to turn it into syrup. There’s 40 gallons of sap for each gallon of water for VT syrup, although some years when the sap is sweeter and you find there's 30 gallons!
o Fuel source – You need a good fire - wood is best, but the wood needs to be dry and you need to make sure that no smoke or ash ends up in the boiling sap, so it is tricky to set up a stove pipe. You can cook sap indoors on the stove, but the cost of that is high for big batches and you’ll have a very sticky kitchen because the steam contains sugar. Using the kitchen stove is a nice way to finish boiling a pot of sap though. You can also use a turkey fryer cooking stand and pot, and cook it over a propane fire. It isn't that efficient since you have a small surface area for the evaporation to take place, so the next step is an evaporator, which is a stainless 5" or so deep pan that sits on the fire.
o Start boiling the sap in a shallow pan. Add a little cold sap at a time, to avoid having to start over. Don’t fill the pan to the very top, to avoid boiling over. The sap will foam up while boiling from time to time. Simply touch the surface of the syrup with a spoon with a little bit of butter on it or drop in a single drop of cream. To transfer fresh sap slowly from the sap source to the boiling pan, one friend of ours places a pot of sap on the side of his boiling pan. The pot has a nail hole in it and it allows a steady stream of sap to squirt evenly right into the boiling pan. I just set a timer for 20 minutes and regularly check the fire, and add fresh, cold sap.
o You’ll know the syrup is done cooking when the syrup is 7 degrees above boiling, which at sea level would be 219 degree F. At higher elevations, that temp varies. If you boil too long, crystals will form, or it will scorch. It is worthwhile to buy a testing cup and a hydrometer to make sure the syrup has the proper density to be labled syrup. I've had syrup measure 219 degrees F, that was still too watery to be syrup - so I'm glad I use the hydrometer.
The testing cup is a tall narrow cup that can withstand the high temperature of the sap liquid and allows you to use just a couple of ladles full to test each time. The hydrometer is a glass tube that floats in the syrup and if enough water has been evaporated off, will float at a certain level in hot syrup that indicates there is 66% sugar content in the syrup. It also has a measure for cold syrup too.
When it gets close to being syrup, you'll notice that there is a different kind of foam that builds on top of the surface. You really need to stay on top of this and use a drop of cream or a tiny bit of butter to create enough surface tension to bring the bubbles down, or it will overflow the pot.
o Some people strain the sap before boiling and some strain it after. Straining before helps by improving the grade of the syrup. Stores carry a special filter for syrup, or you can let the syrup sit and then pour the clear syrup off the top, or you can use some cheesecloth. If you are doing the syrup for your own use, it may not matter to you if it is a little bit cloudy, which can happen if you don't use a flannel maple syrup filter. I filter using many layers of cheesecloth and it gets the little flecks of bark out just fine.
Saving Syrup - Reheat syrup to a temperature just below boiling. Then pour the syrup into sterile jars that have been boiled in a canning pot for 15 minutes, and seal with sterile lids and rings, leaving ½ inch of jar head space. Store jars of syrup in a cool, dark place.