When you think of maple syrup, what comes to mind? Thick, gooey, amber liquid cascading over fluffy pancakes on a Sunday morning? An icy, fun treat in the winter? A refreshing drink in the summer? I’m guessing you weren’t expecting those last two. It’s true though, maple syrup is incredibly versatile and delicious.
Most anyone knows that maple syrup comes from the sugar maple tree. What most people don’t know is that it can take up to fifty gallons of plain sap to make one gallon of pure syrup. Yep. That’s a lot of sap. My next post will give you a demonstration on harvesting and making maple syrup from start to finish (I’m video editing right now) so today I’ll go over the science behind making this delicious treat and the history behind it.
Maple syrup has been made and cultivated for a very long time, originating with northern native American and native Canadian tribes who would drink the sap from the sugar maple tree. They learned that by heating the sap over a fire, they could evaporate some of the water and liquid in the sap and BOOM; maple syrup was born. No one is exactly sure how these people discovered that the sap of the sugar maple was sweet, but one story account told to me at a maple syrup meet up was that a brave was testing a bow and shot into a sugar maple tree. The arrow stuck into the tree deeply and the brave was unable to retrieve it. He came back the next day with a knife, intending to cut the arrow out, but found that sap from the tree had dripped down the arrow into a pool around the tree’s base. After pulling out the arrow, the brave put his now sap-covered hand up to his mouth and discovered that the sap was delicious. While I highly doubt this is what really went down, it makes for a fun story.
Maple syrup has to be made at a certain time of year, when the sap in the roots of winter-dormant maple trees starts to rise back up into the leaves for spring. Typically this time is around late February to early March each year. This is the time when the snow melts and the temperatures begin to rise in the daytime. Ours came in May one year. That wasn’t fun. This is the optimal time to being collecting sap.
The evaporation process of making Maple syrup is done in many ways. You could use the boiling method (the one I’ll be demonstrating later and the most common one), air evaporation (rarely used commercially but can be the subject of science experiments) or freezing. The latter two are rarely ever used for making maple syrup for consumption, but are frequently witnessed by people going to check on the open taps of maple syrup collecting buckets, where the water freezes in syrup and leaves behind a slightly thicker sap. Dry, cold air is the usual culprit of air evaporation.
The sap itself doesn’t travel through the tree like water through a pipe, instead, it flows through the sapwood of the tree. The sapwood sits just above the heartwood and under the bark. When you’re pounding in a spigot, just beyond this layer is the optimal place for it. If you pound a spigot too deep into the heartwood or if the tree is too small to sap from, you can kill the tree.
Homemade maple syrup tastes nothing like the store bought variety. This is mostly because the store bought kind are typically some sort of corn syrup sweetened and darkened to look like maple syrup. These are false imitations of syrup that should be burned and destroyed in the sake of all that tastes good in this world.
Now that you have a good idea on the history and science behind making maple syrup, I’ll show you how to go about making it yourself (if you live in the right environment and have a tree handy) and possibly making treats with it in later posts then.
Note: I highly advise taking a class on making maple syrup first, as it is very easy to start a fire or get into trouble while making it. You don’t need any special permit or license (unless you’re trying to sell the maple syrup you make) but a healthy dose of common sense can go a long way.