Technical posts, technical posts, and more technical posts. ‘Tis the season, maple people! Today: the basics of making maple syrup on the Sapling Evaporator.
(As an aside, because the Sapling comes almost entirely assembled and with finish-assembly instructions that improve every year thanks to our customers’ willingness to send in questions (and our willingness to answer them!) we won’t bore you with those details here. Suffice it to say: it’s pretty darned easy.)
Once assembled, however, the Sapling must be prepared for its first use. Here’s how.
The Sapling Evaporator comes complete with the Sapling Evaporator Pan. When set up, it looks like it’s attached to the barrel. It isn’t! First step: remove the pan. Second, using shims and a two- or four-foot level, level the Sapling front to back and side to side.
Next, place a layer of sand or ash in the bottom of the barrel. (Failure to place an insulating layer in the bottom of the barrel can result in the fire burning right through the barrel. That would be bad.) For added protection and to increase efficiency, some also line the inside of the barrel with fire brick and/or a fire grate.
Finally, apply a thin layer of oil to the exterior of the barrel with a paper-towel or rag, and replace the pan, using a level to confirm that the pan, too, is level front to back and side to side.
Now it’s time to remove any residual materials from the pan. To do so, prepare a solution of 10 gallons of water combined with 2 tablespoons of baking soda. Fill the pan to 2 or 3 inches with the solution. Build a fire in the barrel, and bring the solution to a boil. Boil for 30 minutes, ensuring that the solution in the pan remains at approximately the 2-or 3-inch level by adding more solution, as needed.
Check to see that there are no leaks at the fittings in the pan and that the pan is boiling evenly. Open the valve to ensure that it works properly. Check to see that the Sapling is drafting and venting correctly (that the fire has adequate air intake and that smoke is generally only coming out through the stack). Allow the unit to cool and then drain the pan. Rinse the pan thoroughly with clean water and dry.
Finally! It’s maple syrup time.
When making maple syrup on the Sapling, you must always remember the cardinal rule of sugaring: never apply heat to the pan without liquid in it (or allow the pan to cool without liquid in it). Otherwise, making maple syrup on the Sapling is relatively simple! Basically, you add sap at one location and it travels around the pan, becoming denser as it evaporates, until it gets to the valve. Details follow.
Sart by adding 2 inches of sap to the pan; filter through a cheesecloth on the way in to take out any sticks, twigs or bugs that have accumulated on-tree or in storage. (This is about 5 gallons of sap.) Light and spread the fire so that the pan is evenly heated and the sap is boiling in each of the pan’s three chambers. (Some find that the Sapling Efficiency Baffle helps even out the heat under the pan.)
Gradually add more sap at the back, right corner of the pan. Continue to add sap at this location quickly enough to keep the volume in the pan steady, but not so quickly as to “kill” the boil in the pan. (Here’s where a warming pan comes in handy.) Do this for several hours!
Some tips: don’t add too much new sap at one time, and try to maintain a constant boil. This will result in a more efficient process and lighter syrup. To obtain high, even heat, use dry, mixed (hardwoods and softwoods) wood that is thinly split. And, finally, load often with small amounts of wood to maintain a consistent level of heat.
Now, there are a number of ways to tell if syrup is done. The most sophisticated is to use an instrument called a syrup hydrometer to measure the syrup’s sugar content. Not many of us hobby folk own one of those.
A more common method is to measure temperature; syrup boils at about 7 degrees F above the boiling point of water (so, approximately 219 degrees F). Therefore, when the temperature of the liquid close to the exit valve measures 219 degrees F, you can draw off syrup.
Most of us who make maple syrup on the Sapling choose to draw off a bit early into another pot or pan and finish on, for example, a propane burner outside, or on the kitchen stove inside. This is because those methods allow us to better control the heat (wood heat is hard to regulate) and better monitor the temperature (high quality thermometers need several inches of fluid to give a reliable reading) to ensure that we do not overcook. (Overcooked syrup can lead to one or more of the following: maple sugar, burnt pans, large messes, gnashing of teeth, and broken hearts.)
At any rate, when the syrup near the exit valve is finished or nearly-finished, get a clean container and place it under the valve exit. Then, open the valve and watch the exit temperature. If possible, simultaneously add fresh sap at the introduction location. If not possible, add some before draw off and more after. Continue to draw off syrup until the exit temperature drops below whatever it was when you started drawing off. When drawing off finished syrup, expect to get a pint or so at each draw off. Repeat until beat!
At the end of the first of two or more consecutive boiling days, tamp down the fire and draw off as much sweetened sap as you safely can, backfilling and then flooding the pan with ten or more gallons of fresh sap (the pan will hold 15). Finish the sweetened sap as described above, or use it on the next boil for a faster startup. Cover the pan with something food safe to halt evaporation (the Sapling Evaporator Pan Lid works great) and continue to take steps to cool your fire, monitoring it until the fire is out. When you start the next morning, you can start with some or all of what’s in the pan, or sweetened sap from the day before.
At the end of a boil that is the last of the season (or the last for a number of days), you can either monitor your boil while the fire cools completely and then draw off, or endeavor to finish (or pre-finish) the entire pan of sap at once after all sap has entered the pan, manually lifting off the pan when the contents reach syrup. Lifting the pan is doable with thick kitchen mitts and best done with a friend.
And that’s it! You can catch up on when to tap, how to tap, and how to store your sap if you haven’t already. And check back soon for tips on filtering, canning and storing your syrup!