We begin 2017 buried beneath another five inches of snow that fell on New Year’s Eve. It’s pristine and gorgeous here, with freezing, clear weather forecast for a few days and no melting happening any time soon.
I trudged through the powdery white stuff to bring in sap or maple water and get it boiling today. A double-tapped maple tree I’d previously forgotten to check up a trail near the garage yielded more than a gallon of sap. The two jugs were safe and sound beneath drifts of snow. Inside the jugs, a thick layer of ice had formed. I read too late that one can poke through this layer of water-turned-ice and simply drain out the true sap at the bottom, thereby reducing the time needed for evaporation. Instead, I placed all the jugs in a sink filled with warm water until I had jugs of liquid.
My stovetop held two large pots of watery, clear sap I’d put through a jelly straining bag — about three gallons total that I’d gathered and stored over the past few days. They boiled away all afternoon with our fan set on high. Some syrup folks simply put pans of sap on top of their woodstoves throughout the winter, adding helpful humidity indoors as the water evaporates and syrup is created. Other syrup folks build huge outdoor evaporators and sugar shacks to handle larger amounts of sap and the residual stickiness that is produced by large amounts. My first try with evaporation on this small scale, I kept things simple and observable (and warm) indoors on our stovetop. It was fascinating to watch the liquid change from virtually clear with a slight amber tint to a medium gold to a rich light brown in stages over a few hours.
This syrup project reminded me a bit of the winter science projects required of our three kids during elementary school. The end goal is 66-67% sugar, for those with refractometers. I realized too late in the evaporation cycle that our hydrometer is solely for beer, wine, and cider and maxes out at measuring 35% sugar. Fortunately, an alternative method of determining when sap becomes syrup is to measure its temperature. The boiling point of maple syrup is 7 degrees fahrenheit above the boiling point of water. This means when boiling sap reaches 219 degrees F, enough water has evaporated to officially become maple syrup. Since we are at 1200+ feet altitude, Coppertop’s water boiling point is 210 degrees, not 212, so I completed the batch of syrup at 217 degrees.
The maple water fresh from the jug is loaded with minerals and tastes very mildly sweet. Of course I had to taste the water periodically as it turned to syrup. I love its flavor, and I’d better for all this work. The end result: a mere 1.25 cups!
Filtering the “sugar sand” or “niter” appearing at the bottom of my jars is a topic I’m still learning about. When sap is boiled, the minerals naturally present in the sap are concentrated into a substance called niter, also known as sugar sand. I’m studying the timing, cost, and ease of filtering methods. These minerals are determined by the mineral content of the soil the trees grow in! The niter produced during the syrup process is similar to lime forming on pans or kettles of hard water after repeated boiling.
In other cozy kitchen news, I emptied the crock of this year’s smaller batch of fresh sauerkraut into jars today, yielding three quarts and one pint. I’ve discovered that my fresh sauerkraut lasts for many months (even 20!) in the refrigerator, getting better with age and teeming with probiotics, yet retaining a crispness the processed batch didn’t. Thus, the newest jars are tucked into the depths of our new, roomy refrigerator.