Maple Sugaring

In most of New York State, March is the month for making maple syrup. When the temperature goes above freezing during the day and is below freezing at night, the sap moves up and down in the trunks of maples. By drilling a hole in the trunk of a tree and putting a short pipe (called a spout or spile) into the hole, you can collect the sap in a container. Since maple sap is not very sweet, you need to boil it so that some of the water steams away. The resulting syrup is very sweet and good tasting. Most commercial pancake syrup contains 2 percent maple syrup, or less. The rest is corn syrup.

Early settlers from Europe learned how to make maple syrup from Native
Americans. To learn a little of its history, visit the Michigan Maple Syrup Association site.

As soon as you see icicles hanging from broken twigs on maple trees, it is time to think of making your own maple syrup. An explanation of how to make syrup is below. See also the Massachusetts Maple Producers' Make Your Own website and theCornell Sugar Research and Extension Program website. Both of these sites have other maple syrup resources.

1. Find one or more maple trees. For help recognizing maples, look here

Sugar Maples have the most sugar in their sap but other maples can also be tapped. The buds of soft maples like Red Maple, Silver Maple and Box Elder (also called Ash-leafed Maple) will develop earlier than those of hard maples like Sugar Maple. Once the buds begin to open, the tree uses the sugar in the sap and the sap is no longer sweet.

2. The trees must be at least 10 inches (25 cm) in diameter, 4 and one half feet above the ground. This would mean at least 31 inches (76 cm) in circumference. Drill a 3/8 inch diameter hole in the trunk, two or three inches deep. Really large trees can have two or three taps.

3. Clean any loose wood out of the hole and lightly tap a spile into it with a hammer. You can buy spiles at feed stores or farm supply stores. You can also make your own from a Staghorn Sumac or Smooth Sumac branch. Cut a piece 4 or 5 inches long and use a piece of coat hanger wire to push the soft pith out of the center to create a hollow tube. Have an adult help you to whittle one end a little so it is easier to tap into the hole in the tree.

4. Hang a bucket or can (some backyard producers use clean plastic milk jugs) under the spile to catch the sap when it drips out. If your spile is made from sumac, hang the bucket from a nail. If it is a "store bought " spile, hang the bucket from the spile. A container with a lid will help keep rain water from diluting the sap more and will also keep bits of bark and other things from falling into the sap.

5. When the containers begin to fill, the sap should be collected and refrigerated until you are ready to boil it down to syrup. Most of the boiling should be done outdoors so that the steam will not cause problems in the house. You can make a special fireplace and large shallow pan or you can just use a large pot on an outdoor grill. You will need an adult to help you boil sap.

6. Take the temperature of the sap when it first comes to a boil. This will help you know when it is finished syrup. The faster the sap is boiled, the higher the quality of the syrup. When the sap begins to thicken, most people take it indoors to finish boiling it on a stove where it is easier to control the heat. 

7. The syrup will have the right concentration of sugar when it is 7 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than when it first boiled. Most of New York State is not very far above sea level so the temperatures will probably be about 212 degrees for first boiling and about 219 degrees for finished syrup. Keep a close eye on the sap when it is nearly done. It is easy to have it boil over at this stage. Some people use a little bit of cream or butter to settle the boiling sap if it comes close to boiling over out of the pan. It is also easy to burn it and ruin the whole batch if you are not careful. 

8. If there are any bits of bark or soot from the fire in the syrup when it reaches the final temperature, you can strain it through a clean piece of cloth to filter them out. You can use the finished syrup right away or store it to use later. The sugar level in maple syrup is so high that it can be stored at room temperature without spoiling. You won't have much. It can take 40 gallons of sap, or more, to make one gallon of maple syrup.

If you don't have the time or the trees to make your own maple syrup, you might enjoy visiting a nature center, museum, or farm where they give tours to show how it is made. Some places include a pancake and syrup meal as part of the visit. Most sell syrup. Round The Bend Travel Guide lists some New York State locations which are open for maple syrup tours. Many people think of maple syrup coming mostly from Vermont, but other New England states and New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan are also big producers. Look on a map. Why do you think these states and parts of Canada make a lot of maple syrup?

* The pancake and syrup jug image on this page is from the Cornell Extension Service's Web site and is used with permission.
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