Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Sweet Side of Homeschooling - Maple Syrup

From 5 gallons down to this
     Exciting news:  our first batch of maple syrup is ready.  Over two days we reduced 5 gallons of maple sap into 30 ounces of delicious syrup.  I discussed the tree-tapping part of the process in two earlier posts (here and here).  Now I will describe what is (for us, anyway) the most problematical stage, the Boiling of the Sap.
     It really is a fascinating thing.  In the Spring, when temperatures go below freezing at night but rise to the upper 30’s or above (Fahrenheit) during the day, the sap flows from the roots up to the tips of the maple trees  (because of the unusually cold winter, we haven’t had such days until last week).  If you can collect the sap and boil away about 95-98% of its liquid content, you have something just this side of the nectar of Olympus.
      The tricky part is getting rid of all that liquid.  The big syrup producers have always had large stoves, either outdoors or in specially constructed sheds, with large evaporating pans.  Our first year we had only 12 taps going, and a sudden warm snap in early March cut the season short; we just used our kitchen stove, and opened the windows to let out the steam.  Last year we expanded to 18 taps, and found that the steam (there is A LOT of steam) set off the smoke detectors in the house.  We also found that smoke detectors
Roaster with the lid askew to let out steam

activated by steam are sometimes difficult to turn off.  Our solution was to reduce the sap in a large electric
fryer on the front porch.  It wasn’t really as hot as we would have liked, but we found that if we placed the lid on at an angle (see photo) we were able to retain more of the heat while allowing steam to escape.  It was slow, but just efficient enough for the amount of sap we were collecting.
     This year we have expanded further, to 23 taps, and may yet add a couple more. We have built a vented wooden box to place around the fryer in the hopes that it will stay hotter (and
therefore work more quickly) with the added insulation.  The box also should provide some protection from adverse weather such as we are experiencing today
Roaster in the amazing Steam Box
      As nice as it is to have the syrup, I have to admit that getting there is a large part of the fun.  We probably wouldn’t have done it at all if we weren’t a homeschooling family, since we’re always looking for more or less self-directed projects for the kids, and it didn’t occur to us to do it in the first place until it was suggested by homeschooling friends.  Mark it down as one of the many rewards of teaching your children at home.