Tree Sugar Sex Magik

Last year my friend Danny, who has 25 or so acres up the road a piece, got keen to make maple syrup from the approximately one gajillion sugar maples on his property. It turns out that far fewer than a gajillion are required to produce copious sap, even given the 40:1 reduction ratio that syrup requires. He gathered sap into many five-gallon buckets, with me helpfully bringing some of my own to catch the excess, and we both cooked it down on our respective stovetops (he used his wood stove) in our big speckleware canning tubs. The results were documented here, and we both officially caught the sap fever. This year, as promised, he took it to another level.

Since he is a Grammy-winning producer/musician–his neighbor is Uma Thurman–it’s unlikely to become a career any time soon, but he has taken to it with the same deep fondness that I recognize from my various passionate dalliances with gardening, bread, cheese, vinegar, pickles, and of course charcuterie, because winning Charcutepalooza is totally as good as winning a Grammy (after being nominated for two in the same year).

He built a cinder block fireplace outside his back door to accomodate the pan someone gave him. Unfortunately, the pan was galvanized, with dings in it, and the resulting metallic taste meant that a full gallon of syrup–not sap, syrup–had to be thrown out. Cue the sound of Homer Simpson watching the donut being set on fire. He rallied, though, and ordered a stainless pan custom-made by some syrup survivalist out in Wisconsin or something which even had a tap on the side for pouring out the reduced product.

From six trees, he ended up with four gallons of syrup, which translates to around 175 gallons of sap. From six out of a gajillion trees. Given the resplendent weather, he got the fire going and commenced a-boilin’. That’s how we say it here in the mountains.

Last year we planned a lavish and ongoing party of food, music, syrup, and general winter-is-dead-and-we’re-celebrating festivities, but he was away for a week and two days after he came back I went to France so it wasn’t in the cards. Nonetheless, I managed to swoop in late in the game and barter a homemade mole-flavored salami for a quart of syrup as well as five gallons of sap to play with. We also got a couple of pints’ worth of syrup from our own solitary sugar maple out back. Something I love about the Northeast is that any house of a respectable age has a sugar maple or three right next to the house. Places with more land like Danny’s have whole sugarbushes; they look like regular woods but they’re a cash crop yielding liquid gold. In a couple of weeks we’re going to look for morels back there.

This shot is of the very last of the sap being poured out through a fine-mesh cotton flour sack for finishing on the stove inside, which is why it’s so pale; the small volume meant that it was shrinking such that there was exposed metal on the bottom of the pan and that meant risk of burning. So, after four days of diligent reduction, he turned a bunch of trash barrels full of sap into jars of heavenly sugar that would last his family a good long time.

Since moving up here, I’ve been studying syrup a bit. Growing up, we always had superb syrup from Vermont, and since my Grandfather prided himself on his griddle cakes it featured prominently in formative family breakfast rituals. But there’s something special about homemade. I’ve talked to a couple of experts–and I will have more to say about it–but for now I think the key to truly sublime syrup is to take it off the heat at a lower brix (sugar level) than the commercial outfits do. When it isn’t cooked down to a thick, sticky syrup, other flavors maintain a prominence, specifically vanilla. This is not to say that it should be runny liquid, just that it bears tasting throughout the reduction process so you can stop it when it’s where you want it. I pulled out half a gallon of half-reduced sap last year and fermented it into a subtle and magical vinegar that I use often now that it’s mature. Less-caramelized syrup is also better for baking, since it imparts a less flavor-specific sweetness that is thus more versatile. Pure sap also makes a mighty braising liquid for pork.

My unsupported theory is that further caramelization leads to the more one-dimensional maple flavor via maillard reactions; pulling it out earlier preserves the more fragile notes and makes for a much more complex flavor. Until that research does or does not yield useful information, know this: homemade maple syrup tastes like liquid heaven, but it also tastes like food. It contains the information that people who understand perfect ingredients will instantly recognize as being the defining characteristic of Real Food of any genre: sharp focus, intricate detail, and profound pleasure. If you have sugar maple trees and have considered sugaring, go for it, especially if you have kids: you drill holes in a tree and a whole food that tastes like veritable ambrosia trickles out.

16 comments to Tree Sugar Sex Magik

  • Very cool! I grew up in Atlanta, so my only experience with maple syrup was reading New England set children’s fiction and the brown jug of it my grandparents would bring down when they drove from Binghamton. It had such a outdoorsy sweetness. I liked to eat it after some of it got crystalized.

  • It’s very likely that I saw Danny performing thirty years ago with Kid Creole. They opened for the B-52s at the Beacon Theatre in NYC.

  • Now that I would trade for!! What’s it going to be? Pickles, charcuterie, my first born?

  • Elizabeth

    I understand so little of what you write here, but I find it fascinating!! It reads like poetry!!

  • El

    I agree it’s family fun at all the stages…just knowing that the less-boiled stuff is tender and needs freezing and/or refrigeration and quick eating lest it spoil. (My fave? watery atop our goatgurt for a 100% homey meal)

  • Lee

    I discovered friends doing this at the tail of the season last year and knew I had to get in on it somehow this year. I ended up collecting sap from their trees while they were out of town and tapping the two maples in my backyard. I also participated in a community sap boil on a stove similar to your friend’s. (No need for custom made pans- we built ours to fit restaurant hotel pans) I have many jars in various stages to play with and one of my favorite tastes is the subtle smokiness in some of them. My husband and I also brewed a spruce beer using sap instead of water. I am still hoping to make a mead with the last batch of partially cooked sap and now I am off to try to find your post about how to make that maple vinegar. I haven’t had this much fun in a long time!!

    • Peter

      It is fun. I made birch syrup last year, and it was excellent as well. In May I gather spruce tips for making vinegar and for drying as a spice. There’s so much incredible food in the woods.

  • Eve

    mmmm. looks fun. I love the braising liquid idea, too. Bet morels aren’t the only things you’ll be hunting for up there! Let me know if you see any, please.

  • wyatt

    it looks like whiskey. I wish whiskey flowed out of my trees

  • Mo

    Ug, jealous again!! Looks heavenly!

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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