Foraged Flavor: How to Tap Maple Trees (And What to Do With the Sap)
It's grey and bleak outside, with the morning chill lingering over from still frosty nights. But by midday the sun's rays feel warmer, and the temperature rises above freezing. The sugar maple trees at the back of the house stand silent and silvery, with no sign of green or budding leaves. But inside the tree, things are stirring — the sap water is running. Spring is in the air, and with it comes the window to tap wild maple trees.
It's an old Native American tradition to harvest this living sap from maple trees for enjoyment as a drink, a syrup, a sugar. The Potawatomi would even allow the maple liquid to sour in order to use it as a vinegar, mixing it in with the sweet maple syrup for a "sweet and sour" venison. In particular, sugar maples Acer saccharum, which grow only in eastern and central North America, yield highly prized sap, with reputedly higher yields of sugar syrup, spawning maple syrup industries in Vermont and Canada.
Other maple trees, including Norway maple, and trees such as birch have also been used for syrup although the birch boil down ratio to produce syrup is more on the order of 100:1.
I head out the back door with my neighbor, Les, a retired New Jersey State Forester. We were talking about the weather and he remarked that it was the perfect time to tap some maple. My face lit up and I grabbed my tapping tools: a drill, a hammer, pails, a lid, a metal spout called a spile, and a hook to hang the bucket. Sugar maple kits are available for home use or as a teacher's kit here.
Then we got started. Here's how to tap a maple tree:
Pick your trees: Les selects sugar maples that are at least 12 inches in diameter (meaning they're 30-50 years old). Their bark is deeply furrowed, with the furrows running vertically and looking very rough, often scaling and peeling along the side edges.
Drill a hole: Using a home drill with a specialized drill bit, drill gently into the tree until a hole is formed about 1 ½ to 2 inches deep. (We measured the exact length and wrapped a tape around the drill bit so we could easily tell when we had reached the desired depth.) Try to drill at a slight upwards angle so that the water will run down into the bucket. As soon as we drill, some wood shavings will come off, and clear liquid from the tree starts to spill out. This liquid is from the xylem sap stored as starch in the trunks and roots and then converted to sugar.
Tap the spile in to the tree: Next we take up the metal spile and tap it a few times gently with a hammer into the drilled hole. Now we're tapping!
Hang a bucket on the spile: (Preferably with a lid to keep things from falling in.) We can hear the steady drip drip drip of the sap in to the bucket, like a faucet. If the day is warm I can get as much as a gallon or two a day from each tree.
The maple sugar water is clear and clean, with a faint turquoise sheen, and it taste tastes just like... water. I pour the liquid through a fine cheesecloth into a large pot and boil it down on the stove. The more the water evaporates, the more you can taste the sweet. Boiling four cups for an hour at medium heat reduces the liquid to one cup and with a nicely mapley, lightly sweet flavor.
In order to make the liquid in to a thick syrup, it needs to boil even longer—it takes about 40 cups of liquid to make just one cup of syrup. To make a lot of syrup, you're better off boiling it outside in a flat pan on the grill — people around here tell tales about excessive condensation from boiling, peeling the wallpaper right off the kitchen walls. Maple syrup farms use outdoor "sugarhouses" for boiling off the liquid and processing.
We store our 4:1 reduced sugar maple liquid in a jar in the refrigerator and make a drink of it by pouring it over ice and adding a squeeze of lemon and some lemon zest. Or try boiling it down to a syrup and using it in cocktails. Whatever you choose to do, it's an amazing gift of amber ambrosia water straight from the inside of the maple tree.