By Christy Bassett, NOFA/Mass Communications Director and Homesteader at Barefoot All Natural Farm
If you live in New England and enjoy making and preserving your own food, trying your hand at maple sugaring is a must. Whether you tap one tree in your backyard, or spring for a full-on sugar shack in the woods, time spent amongst the maples will bring you closer to nature and stamp a scent-based memory in your consciousness.
Most of us have at least seen photos or videos of maple sap being collected and/or boiled down (if you haven’t, check out Justamere Tree Farm’s social media pages for their great coverage of their 2021 maple operation), and if you’ve tasted locally made maple syrup, you’re familiar with the unique pride that your sweet tooth feels for our part of the earth.
Each year, our little family of four looks forward to the end of February and early March when the days are warm and the nights are cold, and the sap begins to run. We tap about 20-30 trees and dedicate our weekends for 3-4 weeks to collecting sap and boiling it down into syrup. This yields us 5-10 gallons of maple syrup (depending on how long the weather holds and the sap runs), which is plenty of sweetener for us for the rest of the year. We use maple syrup as a 1:1 substitute for cane sugar in just about any recipe.
While maple syrup is lovely and keeps well just the way it is, sometimes you just need a dry sweetener. For example, one of our favorite things to do as a family is to crash on the couch for movie night with a big bowl of organic popcorn. Sometimes the kids opt for the classic butter and salt version, but usually they beg for cinnamon maple or another maple-sweetened variety. Sprinkling dry maple sugar on freshly popped popcorn (sometimes drizzled with a bit of oil to help it stick) goes over much more smoothly than the sticky mess of straight up maple syrup as a topping.
Making maple sugar from maple syrup is simple, but it does take a bit of elbow grease (or perhaps an electric mixer). But if you’re into self-reliance, that won’t scare you off.
- Add maple syrup to a medium-large pot and place on the stovetop. The pot should be deep enough that there is plenty of room for the maple syrup to boil and bubble up without spilling over. Heat on medium-high heat for about 20 minutes until it reaches 250-266 degrees F (hard ball candy stage). Tip: do NOT stir while the syrup is heating up. This can cause the sugar to crystallize prematurely and turn into a hard rock. You can lower the temperature or add a coating of butter or other fat to the rim of the pot to keep the syrup from boiling over if it seems to be creeping up too high.
- Once at the proper temperature, remove the syrup from heat and immediately begin stirring. (And don’t stop!) The syrup will begin to thicken and change color. You may get tired and need a partner to swap out with you, but really, don’t stop stirring. If you do, the syrup will ball up and become hard and you’ll have to add water and start from scratch again. After about 5 minutes of stirring the syrup will begin to granulate and turn into a powder. (We love to watch the poof of steam that rises when the liquid finally gives up and vacates.)
- Strain the granulated sugar through a mesh strainer to separate the bigger balls of sugar that didn’t completely granulate. These make a delicious ice cream or dessert topping. Store your beautiful homemade maple sugar in an air tight container indefinitely. One pint of maple syrup will make about one pound of maple sugar.
Here’s an amateur video of us making maple sugar by hand. Or, if you’re looking for an easier way to convert your syrup into sugar, use a stand mixer to do the stirring for you.
Bonus things to try with maple:
- Substitute maple sap for water in your tea. (Tip from NOFA/Mass Policy Director Marty Dagoberto that has changed my life!) I haven’t yet found a tea blend that this doesn’t work well with.
- Make your own 3 ingredient ice cream with maple syrup, local milk and eggs.
- Use maple sugar as a topping for yogurt or cinnamon toast.
Visit theorganicfoodguide.org to find a source of local, sustainably produced, maple syrup near you.