Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Well, I've heard of the Maple Leaf Rag, but what about the Maple Syrup Can-Can?

We finished and canned maple syrup this weekend - which is almost always both the most aggravating and satisfying part of the whole process. After all, the half-boiled syrup needs to be condensed to just the right constancy. Too little water boiled off and the syrup might taste good, but it's still watery and could spoil. Boil for too long and either you'll get stuff that leaves sugar crystals in the jar or there will be a gooey mess of syrupy sugar. And of course, it's almost impossible to know how long it's going to take to finish boiling just right. Watched pots never boil, but boiling syrup turns to sugar in a flash.

We started with nearly seven gallons of sap boiled to somewhere between 3/4 and 1/2 to full syrup. I boiled in the sugar shack until it reached about this point, and usually had about 2-3 quarts at a time. I brought it up to the house and filtered it then stored it in gallon jugs in the cool basement until we had enough to move to the next phase.

We've tried so many methods of boiling the sap to a finished syrup in the past. Somewhere over time the pan that just fit across the four burners of a gas stove has wandered away, as has the stove, so we were a bit perplexed. This is not an indoor job - the evaporating steam still has enough sugar content to make a miserable mess of walls, curtains, cabinets and anything else it comes into contact with. But this time we think we may have hit upon a gem of a technique: the turkey deep fryer.

It took a bit to get the last of the deep fried grease off the pots, but once we did, the LP gas tank connected to a single burner and stainless steal pot seemed nearly made for the job.

We had enough liquid at the beginning that we were able to put the thermometer in the lid - but the lid didn't stay on for long.

Soon we were at a rollicking boil. And we stayed there. For a long time.

Maple syrup boils at 7 degrees F above the temperature of boiling water, or 219 degrees F. But we lost volume quickly enough that the thermometer wasn't going to be of much help. No matter - we were already planning to use the much more precise method of using a hydrometer to measure the density of the liquid.

For hot test, syrup at 211 degrees F has a density of 66 Brix (sugar-to-water mass ratio). So we spent multiple long hours running in and out with a jar of boiling hot syrup and dropping the hydrometer in to see if it would float to the right line.

And when it did - there was much rejoicing!

The syrup is a bit darker than it has been in past years - the color of the syrup is dependent on the starting density of sugar in the sap collected from trees. The sweeter the tree sap, the lighter the final syrup. I suppose a multitude of other factors can contribute - how fast the sap is boiled or how long it is stored, for example. But since we're not trying to sell it, we're not too worried that we don't have a batch of Grade A syrup here. We'll still eat it!

Once we hit the magic density, we pulled the syrup off the fire fast, lest it go to sugar on us. Now we kicked the action to high speed.

The hot syrup needs to be filtered while it's still hot (or else it will just gum up the fine fabric cone filter), and it should be canned hot to preserve it.

I think we hit on a working set-up this year - the fabric filter sat inside a metal cone filter and drained into the base of the cream separator (a genuine relic from the Maple Lake Dairy days). The creamer's beginning to leak a little bit, but otherwise it held up to the abuse of several gallons of hot syrup for another year.

Mmm, syrup.

The rest of the canning set-up consisted of a pan to keep the rings and the canning jars warm, a pot to boil the canning lids, and another boiling pot to dunk the jars in to make sure they were evenly hot before filling. Since syrup is so high in sugar content we didn't have to worry about actually boiling the jars, but keeping them hot assures a solid seal.

Everything else happens pretty quickly - fill the jar, put the lid on, tighten a ring, and set aside to cool. Next is sitting back and listening for the *pop* of the lid getting sucked down into a tight seal. Oh, yeah, and the clean up. *sigh*

I didn't keep track of how many gallons of sap we started with to give the nearly seven gallons of finishing syrup, but it was a lot. Still, after two weeks of minding the wood stove, we canned over two gallons in this first run. Not too bad, and the sap's still running, so there's more yet to come!

Home woodshed office

I doubt many Sugar Shacks are so well appointed. Sadly, no power points and no wi-fi, so I can only work as long as the battery holds out.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

I am rich

Today I was the richest person in the world. I had buckets of fresh air and clean, white snow to breathe all to myself. I have more unadulterated oxygen and nitrogen molecules in my own lungs in one day than much of the world gets to breathe in a year.

Thanks to the miracle of a gas-powered chain saw and an axe, I have as much firewood as I can greedily burn (well, for a few days). I have enough fuel at my fingertips to keep several African families in cooked dinners for months. And if I run out of the split and cut stuff, all I need to do is walk ten feet out my door and gather enough to support an Asian town for a week. But I don't even need to burn all this - I have the luxury of sitting next to a warm fire in an efficient wood stove as I boil down sap for a purely non-essential dietary treat.

I had all the drink I needed - no worries about water for tea - I had boiling hot sweet sap in massive quantities right next to me. I was warm, I was dry, and I had clean snow to wash my cup with after.

And that luxury is supplied by the natural world around me, which I am rich beyond measure for being able to take advantage of. So few in the world are in the right place at the right moment with the right kind of trees and the disposable time necessary to collect the blood of the sugar maple tree that runs only during a few weeks of the year, sit next to a stove with plenty of fuel - fuel for no purpose other than to make a sweet syrup - and to enjoy the purity of five inches of snow in April.

40 gallons of sap, a roof over my head, a stove and a lot of wood. Today, I am a millionaire.