Making Maple Syrup: From Trees to Treat (PHOTOS, RECIPE)

06/11/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This is my first Huffington Post post (but, hopefully, only the first of many times I will have the opportunity to say "Post post"). For these posts, I will write about food. Eating food, making food, and food resources in Chicago & nearby. Chicago foodwise, there is much, much to talk about, but for this first post, allow me to take you northward along Lake Michigan, to the state of the same name, where recently my father tapped maple trees and alchemically turned their watery sap to delicious, amber syrup.

This was not the first time my father tapped maple trees. But it was the first time I took the care to learn and admire the process. As a child, this strange non-high-fructose syrup did not appeal to me. It was, from my topsy turvy point of view, not maple syrup. I know. Topsy Turvy.

In the years following childhood, I thankfully came to appreciate pure maple syrup. Its earthy sweetness is versatile, earnest, and elegant at once. But by the time I chose to exclusively buy the "pure" variety, I was away in New York, living a life that felt far from Michigan's maple trees. So I bought the store-bought pure variety. Which is, of course, nothing to scoff at. But considering I had access to homemade (in the most literal sense of the word) maple syrup, I ought to have been a bit reluctant to turn away from paternity and toward patronage.

Coming back to the Midwest, to Chicago, five years ago allowed me to reconnect with my family in so many wonderful ways. This Spring's father-daughter maple sugaring is chief among them. To share the love, I'll share this method, whose description comes to you with thanks to my dad, my mom, and the Kalamazoo and Sarrett Nature Centers.

Trees should be tapped in early Spring, when the nights are cold and the days are warm. The Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension Program explains:

During warm periods when temperatures rise above freezing, pressure (also called positive pressure) develops in the tree. This pressure causes the sap to flow out of the tree through a wound or tap hole. During cooler periods when temperatures fall below freezing, suction (also called negative pressure) develops, drawing water into the tree through the roots. This replenishes the sap in the tree, allowing it to flow again during the next warm period. Although sap generally flows during the day when temperatures are warm, it has been known to flow at night if temperatures remain above freezing.

You will need:

  • drill with a 3/8" bit
  • spile/s (you can order these online)
  • bucket with cover (these can also be ordered online), or milk jug with cap, for catching the sap
  • large pot
  • outdoor stove or grill
  • candy thermometer
  • small pot

To Make:

1. Identify maple trees. Sugar maples, as the name might suggest, produce sweeter sap, but other maples will work as well. You'll just need more sap to create the same end-amount of syrup.

2. Drill a hole in the tree about 2-3 inches deep, and about 4 feet above the ground. You can repeat this process 2-3 times per tree, with all holes at about the same height.

3. Carefully insert the spile into the hole.

4. From the spile, hang your bucket. My dad used old milk gallon jugs, so he added a small piece of plastic tubing to the spile, which then ran into a small hole in the jug.

5. Collect the sap. Depending on how quickly the sap is running, you may need to change the bucket once or twice a day. It should keep, refrigerated, for 3 or so days before cooking.

6. Cook the sap. Because you need a tremendous amount of sap to make syrup, it's best to do this outdoors, in a large pot over a gas grill or propane camping stove. You could also cook it over a log fire, just make sure you have plenty of wood. The point here is that lots and lots of steam will be released over the course of the cooking period. It will peel the paint off your walls.

You may need between 30 and 50 parts sap to create one part syrup. So, begin boiling. And keep boiling. This will take hours.

When you've reduced the sap from about 20 parts to 1 part, or when it is very sweet and amber colored, but still quite thin, remove it from the large pot, and transfer to a smaller pot on your kitchen stove. With a candy thermometer in place, boil this near-syrup on your stove until it reaches 219 °F (or 7°F above the boiling point of water). Keep an eye on it as it nears the proper consistency; it may boil over. To deal with this, some people drip a few drops of cream or butter into the mix. I suspect oil would work as well, to keep things vegan. When the syrup has reached 219, remove from the heat and allow to cool.

7. Store syrup in a glass jar.

If you'd like to try tapping maple trees and making syrup from the sap you collect, the Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension Program is an excellent resource. Another version of this post, with pictures, can be found on my blog, Meals; for Moderns.

Editor's Note: Here are some photos (from the AP and Getty) of various parts of the process Rebecca describes above:

Making Maple Syrup, Starting With A Maple Tree (PHOTOS)