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.