At Vermont Evaporator Company, all our hobby maple-sugar-makers feature "baffled" or "continuous flow" pans, because it makes sugaring more efficient, even in the backyard. But why?
You know what a continuous-flow pan is, but do you know why it's better for sugaring than a flat pan?
To address this question, I asked Expert-of-Sorts, Andy Boutin, General Manager of Pellergy, and, conveniently, co-lessor of 157 Pioneer Center, Suite 1. As Andy was moving stuff around our shared warehouse, I shouted questions at him, and he shouted back, pausing every once in a while to draw me a diagram. Here’s how our high-volume conversation went:
Kate: People want to know why continuous-flow evaporators are more efficient than evaporating on a flat pan. I gather the answer lies in understanding a principle of physics called a “gradient.” I’m trying to figure out what a gradient is, what it has to do with sugaring, and how a continuous-flow evaporator exploits that principle to make more syrup in less time. Can you help?
Kate: Wait. What did you study again?
Andy: Marine Engineering and Naval Architecture.
Kate: Hmm. But that involved a lot of Physics classes, right?
Andy: Yes. There’s a lot of fluid dynamics in that education, with ships and man submersibles traveling through water at different densities. It’s relatable.
Kate: Sold! Why is a continuous-flow pan better for sugaring than a flat pan and what does it have to do with the “gradient.” According to Lord Google, gradient is defined as “an increase or decrease in the magnitude of a property (e.g., temperature, pressure, or concentration) observed in passing from one point or moment to another.” What does that have to do with the price of syrup?
Andy: Lord Google is correct, of course, but that's not how I would explain it. Let’s back up.
Gradient is “physics” for as you move through space or time, something that can be measured changes gradually over the course of that distance. So, on a hot summer day, in a house with no internal doors (or doors that are open), if you climb the stairs from the basement to the first floor, the first floor to the second floor, and the second floor to the attic, you travel through a temperature gradient. A gradient is a gentle slope, not a cliff, and is not the result of a physical barrier. So, when, on that same hot summer day, you cross the street and open a door to a nice, cool, air-conditioned house, you are not travelling through a temperature gradient – the change is not gradual and is the result of a physical barrier.
There are a number of gradients at play when sugaring, but probably the most important one for purposes of this discussion is the density gradient that results from changes in sugar concentration as water evaporates and sap turns to syrup.
Kate: OK, I’m with you. Are there density gradients no matter how you sugar?
Andy: Yes. But they don’t operate the same way in every pan. Envision a flat pan the same dimensions as the Sapling Evaporator Pan---20” x 30”---but with no baffles. Think about the pathway from sap to syrup in that pan. Put the sap in. Start the fire. Water boils off. You add more sap. Now you have a density gradient: the denser liquid is at the bottom of the pan and the less-dense liquid is at the top of the pan. Every time you add sap, that density gradient forms (and, by the way, you kill your boil). So you have to keep boiling and boiling until the entire pan is the same density, and then you draw it all off. That’s the batch process. The gradient works against you, not for you, when you batch.
The concentration gradient works FOR you in a continuous-flow pan, both in terms of efficiency and quality. Now take the actual Sapling Evaporator Pan---20” x 30” with two baffles---and what you have is a pan that operates as if it is a 10” x 60” pan, squashed over the firebox. Now: put the sap in, start the fire, water boils off, you add more sap to one end of the pan only, and you’ve rearranged the gradient into a flowing river, where the less dense liquid pushes the denser liquid toward the pour-off, instead of a stagnant pond with muck settling at the bottom.
Kate: That’s quite a visual. Thanks. And there are efficiency gains as well as quality gains, you say?
Andy: Yes. In the flat pan, the gradient is only as long as the pan is deep, with a baffled pan, the gradient is as long as the different channels all stretched out. The efficiency is in the continuous flow that the latter gradient arrangement allows for – there’s no time-killing start and stop to your boil. The quality gains are that when you do draw off, you are able to take off only one density of syrup, even while other densities exist in the pan simultaneously.
Kate: One last question. Is it just me, or when you Google “sugar gradient maple” does the internet try to sell you wigs and quilting fabric?
Andy: Um . . . It’s you.
Old-fashioned lidded buckets pause for a photo-shoot before heading out into our sugarwoods for their annual stay.
You've decided to make maple syrup this year and you've determined that it's time to tap. Great!
As long as you've identified your maple trees (and any maple will do as long as it is at least 12 inches in diameter) all you need to do is get a hold of some simple tools and equipment, read these instructions, maybe watch our tapping video, and you are ready to go!
FIrst, you need a drill with a 7/16" or 5/16" bit. You can use a cordless power drill or a hand drill - also called a brace. The power drill has the advantage of being a lot faster, whereas the brace is more . . . romantic. . . . if you're into that sort of thing. The brace also has no carbon footprint! (For those of us not into romance.)
A regular bit will do, or you can invest in a "tapping bit," of either size. Our customers report that tapping bits are easier to use and make a nice, clean hole, but we've never used one. Tapping bits for cordless drills are widely available. Choose the bit size that matches the spiles you are going to use (see below).
Second, you need 7/16" or 5/16" spiles - also called "taps." Spiles are the spouts you hammer into the tree to direct the sap from the tree to the bucket or other sap-collection container of your choice.
New spiles are widely available in both sizes and come in metal and plastic. If you are in possession of used or even antique spiles, or looking for some (again with the romance!), chances are they are going to be of the larger size.
Every sugarmaker has an opinion about what size tap is best and whether to use plastic or metal spiles. Do research if you enjoy it, but the important thing is to just get started, so don't feel like you have to sweat the small stuff, here. This is supposed to be fun! Find some taps that are in your price range, and go for it!
You will need one spile per every tap you are going to make. A tree that is from 12 to 18 inches in diameter can support one tap. Trees larger than 18 inches in diameter can take two taps. Putting more than two taps in a tree is not recommended.
Third, you will need a hammer for tapping the spile into the tree after the hole is drilled.
And finally, you need lidded buckets or other food-safe containers such as clean plastic milk jugs attached to the spile with rope or wire, or food-safe plastic bags (widely available).
It is important to note that the old galvanized buckets may contain lead, and it is possible for lead to leach into your sap if sap is left in the bucket for long enough and temperatures are high enough. (Our family uses the old galvanized buckets and collects sap frequently.) New metal buckets are typically made of safer aluminum, there are plenty of plastic-bucket options, and there is even a bucket made of gray plastic on the market for those of you having a hard time weighing the factors of aesthetics, cost and function. (Brilliant!)
(If you'd like a head start on where to find stuff, check out our blogpost on that!)
Now that you have your stuff, you are going to proceed to your first tree and choose a height that is both convenient for the driller and collector. Choose a spot that is easy to drill at that moment, but also think about the current depth of the snow: is the collector going to have to reach over his or her head to collect the bucket when the snow melts?
Having settled on a height, inspect your tree. For best results, you should choose a place on the tree that is either below a big branch or above a big root, and definitely not near a knot or wound in the tree. Cardinal direction doesn't matter too much - every year you should tap at least 6" away from the prior year's tap anyway - but a southern tap will flow before a northern one, so do think about how you'd like to time your season. When you've chosen your spot, drill a hole of about 1 inch or so at a slight, upward angle and look for nice, light, creamy wood chips and sawdust coming out. If what you see is dark or dead, find another place on the tree to tap and try again.
When you have your hole, tap your spile in using your hammer, hang your bucket, and put on your lid. Move on to the rest of your sugarbush. Now it's time to wait for the sap to run!
Would you like to see it done? Here's a video featuring the inventor of the Sapling Evaporator tapping a tree in our sugarwoods.
The sap of the sugar maple runs when nighttime temperatures are freezing and daytime temperatures are not.
Finally! A question that's easy to answer. This is going to be a short blog post. Well . . .
Here are the basics. You aren't going to be able to collect sap from a maple tree until the sap starts running. Sap runs when nighttime temperatures are freezing and daytime temperatures are not. So when you tap is going to depend entirely on where you live - both in terms of geography and elevation - what the weather is doing that year, and thus when it is both cold enough and warm enough to create sap flow.
As you know, the climate is warming and weather patterns are changing, so the old rules-of-thumb are becoming less and less useful. For example, here in Central Vermont, Town Meeting Day (the first Tuesday in March) is when hill farmers would traditionally tap. For the last few decades, however, March has sometimes proved too late for us. These days, the professionals start early in the year, and us hobby farmers are likely to get ourselves out in the sugar woods by mid-February.
This year, some folks in Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia started tapping, collecting and even boiling during the week between Christmas and New Years! That's early by anybody's standards. By the end of January, however, the rest of the Southern Midwest and Mid-Atlantic - Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania - will likely have joined them. Southern New England and thereabouts - Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Southern New York and Connecticut - will follow. Like Vermont, in the Northern Midwest and in New England - Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northern New York, Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire, folks typically don't tap until at least mid-February or even March. And we've got customers at certain elevations in upstate New York and in Canada, for example, who may wait until April! Oy!
The easiest way to get acclimated, if you are just starting out, is to pay attention to what other sugar makers are doing in your area. The forums on mapletrader, which are broken down by state, are a great resource for this. Or you could ask your local professional sugar maker and make a friend and ally in the process! But if you see that sweet steam rising in the neighborhood, that's a sure sign that it's time to get a move on.
Most sugar makers we've spoken to say that once the new year has passed, you can't tap too early, even if the sap is weeks away from flowing. There are detractors, of course, who say that a tree will close a wound early if tapped to early, such that you may miss some late-season flow. If, like most of us, you are a subsistence sugar maker who doesn't like to sweat the small stuff much (and isn't worrying about the return on investment for fancy equipment) just consider the above and find yourself a suitable weekend when it's convenient to get out there and take pleasure in the annual rite.
If you've identified your maple trees, everything else you need to know in order to make maple syrup in your backyard is here in its shortest form.
Sugaring season is drawing close. You want to start this year but you aren't sure you have time to figure it out and get your operation in order! It's almost February!
Not to fear. Here is the shortest guide to backyard sugaring ever made. You can DO it!
Step 1: Get Equipped
As long as you've identified your maple trees (and any maple will do as long as it is at least 12 inches in diameter) all you need to do is get a hold of some simple tools and equipment and you're ready for your first boil. The list of stuff you need is short:
For more about this stuff and where to acquire it go here.
Step 2: Tap
It depends on where in maple country you live and what the weather is doing. Sap runs when nighttime temperatures are freezing and daytime temperatures are not. So, right now our customers in the Southern Midwest and Mid-Atlantic - Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania - report that they are already tapping and collecting. In the Northern Midwest and in New England, however, we typically don't tap until at least mid-February and sometimes not until March. And we've got customers at certain elevations in upstate New York, for example, who have to wait until April! So pay attention to what the weather is doing and what other sugar makers are doing in your area. A great resource for the latter are the forums on mapletrader, which are broken down by state. Or you could ask your local sugar maker and make a friend and ally in the process.
How do you tap?
Easy. Learn here.
Step 3: Collect Sap
Monitor your sap containers daily so that the sap does not overflow or get to warm. When your containers are full, or when the sap is exposed to warm temperatures or direct sunlight, collect from the tree and store in snowbanks in the shade, a cool garage, or other naturally refrigerated place in 5 gallon buckets or other large food-grade container. Sap will keep for a week or so at refrigerated temperatures. It is OK for sap to freeze. In fact, some of us throw out the ice chunks on the theory that it's just water. And it's OK for you to mix the sap from different maple trees together. It all tastes the same.
Step 4: Boil
When you have time to boil, boil! This is going to take a while, so either start as early as possible in the evening and know you aren't sleeping much that night, or, better yet, choose a day when you would be home anyway.
Exactly how this goes will depend on your arch. If you have a continuous-flow pan, like the Sapling Pan or the Seedling Pan, you will flood the pan with sap that you've strained through your cheesecloth, start your fire, and continuously pour sap into the entry point. And wait. You should be able to make 1 or 2 gallons of syrup in a 10-hour day with our products.
If you have a series of flat pans, you will flood all pans with strained sap, start your fire, and consolidate the boil into one pan as the levels in all pans reduce, leaving pan(s) open for new sap to be processed. And wait even longer.
If you have one flat pan, you will flood the pan with strained sap, start your fire, and occasionally fill the pan back up again with sap. And wait the longest of them all.
Regardless of your getup, you will measure the temperature (with thermometer) or sugar content (with hydrometer) of your boil at the exit point or final boiling pan, and pour-off/dump-out syrup when it measures 219 degrees F or 66 brix. OR you can also just dip a spoon or spatula into the boil, and observe how it behaves coming off the utensil and/or on to a cold plate. Syrup is said to "apron" off a spoon, and acts like syrup as it cools on your plate. Sap doesn't. It acts more like water in both scenarios.
Step 5: Filter and Store
Filter your syrup right away, pour immediately into food-safe containers, and invert the container briefly to sterilize the inside of the lid. If done quickly enough, this is all the canning process you need to keep syrup safely in a cool, dark place for two years! For more detail on safe canning, see here.
Need more help? Or prefer a guide you can hang onto in the woods? We recommend Maple Sugaring at Home, by Tap My Trees, available here. It's affordable, easy to use, and covers the basics in more detail.
Have fun and keep in touch!
)'Twas the Friday before Christmas and all through the shop,
machinery was whirring, with a chug, clang, and pop!
The product was nestled and shelved with great care,
in the knowledge that new owners soon would be there.
And this mamma-CEO, whose energy was sapped,
had just settled down for an above-desk nap.
When, out in the parking lot, there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the "boardroom" to see what was a'matter.
Away to the freight door, I flew in a jolt,
and threw it overhead by loosening the bolt!
(The rain on the crest of the dirty, old snow,
gave the luster of sap season to the landscape below.)
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
but a big eighteen-wheeler, license plate: RND-EER!
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his orders they came,
and he whistled and shouted and called them by name:
"Six Saplings, ten Warmers, a dozen Grill Covers,
some Grill Grates, a Smoker, and a Seedling (for mother);
"some touch-up paint, a few gift cards, and a big, red bow!
Here, I'll help you load up, so we can all go!"
We spoke not a word, but went straight to our work.
We filled that big truck, then Clause turned with a jerk.
"The sap will flow well this year," he said.
(Which gave me to know, we have nothing to dread!)
He sprang to his seat, gave the teamsters a whistle,
and flew down the drive, like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, 'ere he turned onto Rte. 2:
"Merry Christmas to All, and a Happy New Year too!"
Back by popular demand! For the month of December, Sapling Evaporators come "gift wrapped" with a big red bow!
The hubbub of Thanksgiving has passed and you are looking forward to the gift-giving part of the holiday season! (Or, maybe not, but you're still participating in it. It happens. Might as well do it up.) You have an actual or aspiring backyard sugar maker in the family, and you would like to get them something they can use for their hobby maple syrup operation.
You are in luck! Here's why. First, sugaring season comes swiftly on the heels of the holiday gift-giving season. So, unlike that trowel set/pressure canner/hunting rifle you've been eyeing for the same person, backyard sugar making tools can be used shortly after they are opened!
Second, buying for the backyard sugar maker does not have to be expensive. Rather, the tools you need are simple, easy to find, and cover a variety of price points. There are bulky, big ticket items, to be sure, but also plenty of smallish, down-ticket items appropriate for . . . say . . . eight gift-giving nights in a row. . . a stocking, or . . . a package with postage that doesn't break the bank!
Oh, but you don't know anything about sugaring? Or you don't know much? No biggie. Got you covered. Breathe. First of all, remember gift certificates. Second, include a gift receipt. Third, just get educated. Let's dive in.
First off, decide what category your gift recipient falls into. Are they (1) an aspiring sugar maker, or (2) an amateur who has made maple syrup on their stove / grill / other self-fabricated outside contraption. Knowing the answer to this question is important, as you will see.
The list of things any amateur sugar maker needs is short and as follows:
If any of those items reached out and grabbed you already, awesome! We've reviewed six online stores where you can purchase the supplies here, and you can find our product line here.
Otherwise, here are some recommendations:
For the Aspiring Sugar Maker
The aspiring sugar maker has always wanted to make maple syrup but hasn't pulled the trigger yet.
Awesome! For the modestly adventurous, consider a starter kit like this one, which comes with some how-to guidance. You could also spend less (or get enough to tap something more than three trees) by sourcing the same or similar stuff elsewhere and reading the shortest guide to maple sugaring ever (written by yours truly). Consider throwing in a couple of food-safe 5-gallon buckets, a syrup filter and pre-filter, and a case of half-pint mason jars for the complete package.
A Seedling Urban Evaporator over a cinder block fire (either wood or propane via a turkey fryer base or the like) would be an appropriate pan for as little as a three-tree operation. And, bonus: any purchase from us allows you access to the (unofficial) Vermont Evaporator Company Sugaring Hotline (my cell phone), which, my customers can tell you, is open at all times of the day and night for sugaring urgencies and emergencies!
If your aspiring sugar maker is moderately to highly adventurous, consider outfitting them for a ten-tap start instead (a drill and/or bit, ten buckets, ten spiles, cheesecloth, pre-filter, filter). There are several stand-alone, how-to guides out there, but also plenty of similar information becoming available on the internet.
A Sapling Evaporator Pan over a home-made wood-box, or a Sapling Evaporator will come in handy for a ten-tap operation.
For the Amateur Sugar Maker
More even than an aspirant, though, the actual-already-amateur sugar maker will appreciate a "real" pan or rig. As your budget allows, consider upgrading your loved one from that bucket-over-an-open-fire, broiling-pan-on-the-grill, inside-the-house operation by maybe adding to their bucket-and-spile collection (be sure to confirm that they have more trees to tap!) and springing for a new pan. The Seedling Urban Evaporator ($295) for up to ten taps, the Sapling Evaporator Pan ($315) or Sapling Evaporator ($895) for five to fifty taps.
Looking for something more modestly priced? How about some fancy syrup containers for their next harvest, or a good maple read (I can not recommend The Maple Sugar Book often enough) for off-season reflection on a favorite hobby? Or - in the category of boring but important - consider a 55 gallon sap storage container, handy for storing sap between weekend boils.
The first chapter in the history of maple syrup is a uniquely Native North American one.
First there were historic midterm elections, and then I turned 40. (Nope! Not unrelated! My mother and father voted on the way to the delivery room.) Then there was the one hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I---Armistice Day---and yesterday was Veteran's Day. We're just about to celebrate Thanksgiving, and, all the while, November is National Native American Heritage Month. I guess you could say that, with this year's change in the weather (read: annual slowing down), there's been more than the usual amount of reflection going on over here.
And that's as it should be. My election-related birth-story aside, each of these commemorations honor different bits and pieces of our familial lore. A woolen vest that my maternal great grandmother (pictured seated below) knitted for my great grandfather during World War I hangs in my closet; he lied about his age and enlisted in the Army at 16. I sit beside a framed picture of my paternal grandmother preparing to fly a domestic supply plane while my grandfather was half-a-world away in a helicopter bound for the eastern front (and while my husband's grandfather commanded a tank on the western front) of World War II. A cousin on one side manned a Navy submarine during the cold war, and an uncle on the other was there with the Coast Guard when the wall fell, marking the end of it.
I will be the queen of pie again at Thanksgiving this year, bringing the traditional trifecta of pumpkin, apple and pecan to the table. My mother will do the cranberry bread and cranberry preserves, the sweet relish and pickles (all family recipes) and my mother-in-law one bird, the gravy, and the stuffing. (My husband will smoke the other on our Sapling!) I will rely on my father, as usual, for his signature green bean (amandine) and broccoli (polonaise) dishes. And somehow, in the chaos of so many cooks, I'll manage a skin-on mashed red potato with parsley and a "squished squash"---the unadulterated butternut dish of my childhood. We'll rely upon a local bakery for the rolls. Sigh. I can't wait!
Until last year, though, I didn't even know November held another occasion for slowing down and reflecting: National Native American Heritage Month. And now that we're several years into running a business manufacturing equipment for backyard maple sugar makers, it seems a good time to pause, remember, and give thanks for how open-air sugar making got its start many hundreds (thousands) of years ago here among the native peoples of North America.
Corn, beans, cotton, tobacco and maple are all crops first developed by the Americans. Unlike with the first four products, there were a handful of prominent European immigrants who purported to take credit for the discovery of maple syrup or maple sugar (we'll call out a certain Jesuit Priest, P.F.X. Charlevoix, on the latter). However, history and common sense weigh heavily against these lonely historical voices. Rather, European writings overwhelmingly describe the processing of maple as a traditional activity engaged in by tribes covering a vast geography of present day United States and Canada, with the language, customs and legends you might expect to attend to any practice of cultural importance.
Contemporaneous European writings indicate that maple sugar making was an activity widely engaged in across the continent among tribes that lived---at least at the time Europeans made landfall---across and even slightly beyond present-day sugar country. To appreciate this geographical scope, note the traditional territories of the Abenaki, Algonquin, Chippewa, Cree, Housatunnuk, Iowa, Iroquois, Kansa, Kickapoo, Menomini, Ojibwe, Omaha, Osage, Ponka, Tuscarora and Winnebago peoples---all of which are among those mentioned in European writings about maple---on this awesome map.
Native American words for maple are interesting too. Algonquins call maple sugar sinzibuckwud (drawn from wood), while the Tuscarora, Omaha/Ponka words for sugar - urenakri and janija - mean, simply "tree sap" (likewise, the Winnebago tanijura niju means "wood water" or "wood rain"). Like present day sugar makers, the Americans appreciated the difference between a maple tree generally---ninautik (Ojibwe for "our own tree")---and the sugar maple, sheesheegummawis (Ojibwe for "sap flows fast") too.
Far from being decried as "the cruelest month(s)," however, many Americans celebrated March or March and April as the "sugar moon," and European accounts of the ceremony, dance, feasting and revelry that attended what we now call "sap season," "boil-off season," or "maple syrup time" abound. (This, perhaps, should come as no surprise, as at least one European immigrant noted that maple sugar sometimes functioned as a stopgap against famine here in the early spring months.) According to European writings, an Ojibwe custom involved a tribal leader mixing together maple sugar from the prior year's harvest with the first grains produced in the present year to kickoff an annual feast, for example. And several tribes recounted to Europeans legends explaining the origins of maple---one as the unintended consequence of cooking with sap instead of water in order to save an arduous trip to the river, and another involving a divine being watering down what used to flow out of the tree as syrup as an instruction in proper work ethic (or rebuke for the lack of same).
The way the Americans made maple sugar, however, will sound quite familiar to the backyard sugar makers of today. As was common among the descendants of European (and other) immigrants up until just half-a-century ago, Americans typically set-out to live in a camp nearer to the family's sugar stand when the sap began to flow. In a number of traditions, the camps belonged to the women and were passed down matrilineally. Unlike today, where practices vary, it was predominately the women of the family who ran the sugaring show, with the aid of children and youth (and, less often, or for specific tasks, grown men). They made bark sap buckets, bark buckets for transportation and storage of sap, "tapped" the tree with a gash and a wooden chip, and oversaw the boiling itself, which, until Europeans brought and traded metal cookware, took place in hollowed out logs into which were placed hot rocks. Like we do today, the Americans were known to throw the ice off of the top of a sap or sap-storage bucket to concentrate the sugars (it is officially not cheating!), and even store sap in large shallow pans to produce more ice (nature's reverse osmosis!) to drink the sap, eat fresh syrup and maple toffee (present day "sugar on snow") during the boil, and make gifts of their maple bounty (typically by pouring almost-sugar into carved wooden molds of animals, birds, people, celestial bodies and more)!
Because of the non-existence (or, after European arrival, scarcity) of glass and metal, however, the bulk of the American maple crop was made all the way into sugar and packed into bark baskets for transportation and year-round storage. This was done, as it is today, by continuing to boil past the sugar and toffee stages, and by stirring constantly until crystallization occurred. (Apparently, the Americans' maple sugar lumps, like mine, sometimes needed a good whacking in order to resemble sugar. Which is also nice to hear.)
Americans ate maple products on their own (see above) but also relied upon it, in the same way Europeans relied on salt, to season their food. By way of example, European immigrants recorded eating corn porridge sweetened with maple sugar, rice, nut and fruit dishes seasoned with maple sugar, and dipping sauces made from maple sugar and bear fat on dry or cooked venison. American mothers were said to give their children small baskets containing sugar from the year's first sap run, and lumps of sugar throughout the year when quiet behavior was unattainable using other methods. (Thus vindicating many a modern-day parenting style!)
There's much more, of course, than what I've related here. If you are interested, pick up this book as a start. I'm looking forward to relating more to you during next year's observation of National Native American Heritage Month. Until then, enjoy the annual slowing down, travel safe and enjoy your loved ones this holiday season.
Together in Maple!
This blogger's heritage is also North American! I am pictured here with my matriline, which traces back to the Mi'kmaq, a native people of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Newfoundland and Maine. The Mi'kmaq word for the month of March translates to "Maple Sugar Moon." We've long since lost our ties to this branch of the family, but I guess you could still say we've got maple syrup in the blood!
A bowl of Cortlands waiting to be pied. Our secret ingredient? Apple cider syrup - another American tradition!
There's this thing you might not know about yet. It's called apple cider syrup (a.k.a. "boiled cider," or "apple molasses."). Once a commonplace way to preserve apple cider and its nutrients throughout the long winter months in hill farms and homesteads across New England and westward, apple cider syrup is currently completing its journey from traditional pantry staple to cultural artifact to commercial commodity.
Food nerds (guilty) can find out more about the rise and fall of apple cider syrup at Slow Food USA. The culinarily curious can get a taste of some by visiting Woods Cider Mill in person or online. (They call it "boiled cider," there.) And the rest of you need only know that you can make your own by (1) pressing apples or buying cider, and (2) boiling it down to one-seventh of its volume either in your kitchen or, for large quantities, your Sapling Evaporator or other backyard maple sugaring equipment.
Apple cider syrup can be poured over pancakes, waffles and ice cream, makes good marinades, sauces and salad dressings, and is added to apple desserts to make them more flavorful. It is also a tasty addition to hot and cold drinks. Where apple cider syrup recipes are concerned, have no fear, the internet provides!
We first learned about apple cider syrup from Audra, a customer of ours. Audra purchased a Sapling Evaporator Pan from us shortly after moving to a homestead that came complete with dozens of ancient apple trees and space in the garage to store her heirloom cider press.
Audra grew up in Weathersfield, Vermont, near the famed Wood's Cider Mill, and made maple syrup every spring with her family. In addition, there was a family cider press. In fact, all three of her brothers, as well as at least one of their college buddies, went on to found and run apple-related businesses, including Brown Brother's Cider (motto: "we squeeze to please," no joke!), White Mountain Cider Company and Champlain Orchards. (That's what I call making a living in rural America, people! Woot!) So picking, pressing and preserving apples was also a family affair, and Audra was known to can up to twenty gallons of apple cider per year!
"When I saw your Sapling," says Audra "a light went off in my brain! I knew about the process [of making apple cider syrup] and thought what an awesome way to preserve cider and create a unique local product. Your Sapling is such a perfect size for a small homestead."
Why, thank you! Unfortunately, the apple year was crummy in central Vermont this year, at least for us homesteaders. But "If we get a good apple year soon," says Audra, "I hope to work on some of my own creations. I plan to experiment with herbal and berry infusions. We have a growing farm and produce an increasing array of herbs and berries as well as keep bees and harvest honey."
As to how Audra enjoys apple cider syrup, "I usually use it as an extra special ingredient," she says. "So far we have added it to recipes to give them an apple kick. I like to pour it over meat when baking for a unique flavor, [and] it is tasty on ice cream and in salad dressing. [I] [a]dd it to apple pie or crisp, muffins etc. I know I haven't tried half of the possibilities."
Once again, we're so glad we took the opportunity to get to know - and learn from - one of our great customers. If she'll have us, we'll check back in with Audra after next year's (cross fingers) bumper apple crop and let you know how her experiments pan out.
Until then, if you happen to have access to pressed apples and are itching to use your backyard maple sugaring equipment, give apple cider syrup a go!
Maple syrup and apple syrup: two traditional, American sweeteners.
Lunching with perfection here on cobb salad with maple mustard vinaigrette. To emulate, add to your favorite hearty fall salad: one parts each of maple syrup, Dijon mustard, and red wine vinegar to three parts olive oil. Seriously easy. Seriously yummy.
If I ever write a cookbook, I will call it "Cooking without Thinking." Other titles under consideration include "How to Cook Well Without Trying too Hard," or "Cooking Well, Cooking Urgently." I particularly like this last one, actually. Because this is pretty much how I roll in the kitchen on an every-day, feeding-a-growing-family basis. Whatever your life is like during the day, if you do food prep for a family at the end of it, I know you are hearing me right now.
There are recipes - goodness yes, recipes abound! - but we have an open relationship. That is to say, there is very little measuring going on, there are plenty of ingredient substitutions, and, as a result, the children have no idea that today's chicken pot pie might - in another household - be expected to taste like the one they were served several weeks ago.
It's a beautiful thing! There are failures, I will not lie. A certain vegan cauliflower curry prepared during the first trimester of my second pregnancy comes to mind (shocker!). But a dozen years in, I'm settling into a routine of success born of practice, practice, practice and some go-to culinary habits. I sat down and brainstormed all of my maple-related habits today and - glory be - I have at least ten! That's blog-worthy, people!
So here are ten ways I use maple without thinking about it. And a warning to the chemists, a.k.a. bakers, out there - brace yourselves, there's going to be a whole lot of "to taste!"
Good Eating to You!
1. Secretly Wow Chili
This is my favorite. Making chili, for me, is like: (1) chop and saute what you have of the following (onions, garlic, bell pepper, uncooked meats), (2) add what you have of the following (canned beans of pretty much any kind, frozen corn, leftover meats), and (3) simmer for a while with however much of whatever canned tomato products are around, red wine if you have it, and oregano and cumin. But sometime before serving, I add three things: unsweetened cocoa powder, cinnamon, and maple syrup. To taste, of course. It's pretty awesome.
2. Maple Pizza Sauce
The only other main-course item on this list is pizza sauce, which, for me, is a "to taste" combo of tomato paste, Italian herbs, and maple syrup. Just enough to take the edge off the tang. Love it.
3. Maple Glazed Nuts
Either for sitting around with drinks or as a salad or dessert topper, you can't go wrong with maple glazed nuts. I've done almonds. I've done walnuts. My favorite is probably pecans. Maybe the next time the pantry is lean, I'll give peanuts a go. Here's how I do it: I throw some nuts into my big cast-iron pan and turn it to medium, medium-high, depending on how soon I want to have to pay attention. I Stir for several minutes until I see the nuts brown and even blacken. I pour in some maple syrup and stir like heck until all the nuts are coated. I turn off the heat, but keep stirring until the activity in the pan slackens. If I can fend off the glazed-nut fans, I let them sit in the pan for a bit, scrape them off, and serve cool.
4. Maple Mustard Vinaigrette
I credit this recipe and the next two for the fact that my kids love salad. This dressing also requires no measurements, just a vague sense of how much volume you'd like to end up with. Simply whisk one part each of maple syrup, Dijon mustard and red wine vinegar with three parts olive oil. Done and done.
5. Maple Balsamic Vinaigrette
Again, no measuring here. Whisk one part maple syrup and one part balsamic vinegar (try white balsamic if you have it - it's even better) with three parts olive oil. Bam.
6. Red Cabbage Slaw
Add shredded red cabbage to some stuff of other colors, like shredded or chopped carrot, parsnip, fennel or finely chopped fresh parsley. Add raisins if you're into it. Douse generously with maple syrup, apple cider vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper, and red pepper flakes. Let sit for 20 minutes and serve with slotted spoon. Mayo need not apply.
7. Chocolate Milk / Hot Cocoa
Impress the youth with your "oh but I can make that" solution when the Hershey's / Swiss Miss runs out!
For chocolate milk - and this is clever - take a gallon jug that has only the desired volume of milk left in it, and funnel in conservative and equal amounts of cocoa powder and maple syrup. Shake vigorously. Shake again. Entertain the tots with all that shaking. (Or think ahead and just let it sit.) Taste. Adjust. Serve.
For the hot stuff, simply combine equal parts maple and chocolate over heat, add milk, cook to desired hotness, and serve.
Bottle of red wine not tasting the same as when you opened it last week? No problem. Slice up some citrus fruits and plunk in a pitcher with the dregs of the bottle. Add maple syrup to taste. Serve diluted with club soda or not. Pretty not bad.
9. Mulled Wine
Bad bottle of red wine but it's not summer anymore? That's cool. Let's make it hot! Put it over low heat with whatever of the following you have (cinnamon stick, whole cloves, whole nutmeg, whole star anise, cardamom pod) and add maple syrup. Mull it, and spike it with bourbon or rum to serve.
10. Maple Whipped Cream
Next time you are making whipped cream from scratch, use a titch of maple to sweeten instead of sugar. Yummy, impresses the guests, and no sand-between-the-teeth feeling.
City folk want to know: who ARE these people who make their own maple syrup in their backyards? Well, for one thing, we're people who live . . . here!
There's something we've been wondering lately from both personal and professional perspectives: Who ARE we backyard sugar makers? Where do we come from? What kind of syrups do we make? Why do we engage in this admittedly extreme hobby?
So we asked! And about 50 of you responded. And now we know a little more than we used to. We thought you might like to know too! So here goes.
First of all, we syrup makers are diverse in age, ranging from our mid-20s to mid-70s! Like hunting, fishing, gardening, and keeping poultry and bees, this traditional activity seems to be a lifetime sport. Does this help us focus our advertising? Absolutely not - you people are killing me. But can we imagine sugaring into our seventies? You bet! On balance, we'll take it as a fair trade.
Another area of diversity: what kind of syrups we make. Predictably, an overwhelming majority of those surveyed make maple syrup. As do we. But a surprising number of people (4) responded that they make black walnut syrup! If you know nothing at all about that, you are in good company, and, having had no idea it was so popular, we promise to blog about it by and by. A few people responded that they make apple cider syrup, and other responses included birch, spruce tip, dandelion, and hickory. That's quite a variety!
While the size of our operations vary, most of us produce between one and five gallons of syrup per year, and an overwhelming majority of us do it without the benefit of a sugar shack or outbuilding. Our equipment is quite varied, ranging from pedestrian crock pots to sophisticated drop-flue or raised-flue pans and also including indoor and outdoor wood stoves, cooking pots, hotel pans, various propane burners, bricks and cider blocks, campfires, homemade barrel evaporators, and, of course, a few of our products. Just Google images for any iteration of "backyard maple syrup making" and you'll see what I mean. We're a handy, frugal, resourceful lot, we are.
And we sugar for a wide variety of reasons, as well. For many of us, sugaring is just plain fun. For others, sugaring is an activity enjoyed with family, and, for some, a way to remember friends and family members that have passed on, connect with younger generations, or a way to celebrate a birthday. A lot of us find maple sugaring a good way to get ourselves and our children outside in late winter, an antidote to mud season, or an activity that forces us to relax. Some of us enjoy the solitude of the woods, and the intimacy-with-place that sugaring engenders. Several of us use sugaring as a teaching tool, many of us give away our wares as gifts, and, of course, we all love the taste of our various syrups! One respondent called the activity "addictive," and another quipped, wisely, that "[y]ou have to experience it to know."
And then there's geography. While nearly half of the respondents were from Vermont, also represented were sugar makers from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Ohio, Ontario, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wisconsin. But even this extensive list is incomplete. Sugar country is larger than you thought, isn't it!?
On Teaspoon of Sugar, we write about maple sugaring, maple syrup, starting and running a small business, and living the sweet life here in beautiful, downtown Montpelier, Vermont.