By Elizabeth Joseph, Heifer Farm garden and education coordinator
Picture a cold, bright day in February at Heifer Farm in Rutland, Massachusetts. The cows munch on hay that was cut months ago, when pastures were still green. The organic gardens rest under a foot (or three!) of snow. The sound of a chainsaw buzzes in the distance as trees are felled to feed a wood furnace.
A group of volunteers who live and work on the farm bundle upand head to the forest with drills, hammers and metal buckets in tow. Temperatures rise above freezing during the day but dip below freezing at night, a sure sign to maple sugarers that it’s time to tap the trees!
We work with our neighbor, Jon Williams, during our sugar harvest. This partnership is particularly meaningful as Jon’s grandparents, Bill and Nancy Williams, donated the 270 acres of land that is now Heifer Farm to Heifer International in 1983. Together, we tap 360 trees.
The sap of a sugar maple tree (Acer saccharum) is 98 percent water and 2 percent sugar—and it is that 2 percent that will yield a delicious sweetener. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, and it is simply boiling the sap to remove water and thus concentrate the sugar that makes maple syrup.
|• 1/2 cup butter, softened
• 1/2 cup sugar
• 1 egg
• 1 cup molasses
• 1 tsp baking soda
|• 1 1/2 tsps warm water
• 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 1/2 tsps ground ginger
• 1 1/2 tsps ground cinnamon
• 1/4 tsp salt
In a large bowl, cream together the butter, sugar, egg and molasses. In a separate bowl, dissolve the baking soda in warm water, then add to the egg mixture. Beat until smooth. Mix flour, ginger, cinnamon and salt into the wet ingredients until well blended. Cover and chill for 24 hours.
Preheat oven to 350 F and prepare two cookie sheets by oiling or covering with parchment paper. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to a thickness of 1/4 inch. Cut out cookies using cookie cutters of your choice (we love farm animals!) and place the cookies 2 inches apart on cookie sheets. (They’ll expand slightly.) Bake 10 to 12 minutes in the preheated oven, or until firm. Cool on wire racks.
These cookies are fun to decorate with frosting and sprinkles but are great to enjoy plain. If you have any leftover, you can grind them up into crumbs and make a gingerbread pie crust!
Enter the sugar house and you’ll immediately feel warmth radiating from the evaporator and smell a sweet maple aroma in the air. Steam billows up and out of an opened cupola in the roof as the sap reaches a rolling boil. The fire cracks and pops, constantly being fed wood by the sugarers who often are wearing T-shirts and working up a sweat—it can reach 90 degrees next to the evaporator!
We can boil about 20 gallons per hour, which means we draw off , or “pull,” half a gallon of syrup each hour. Filtering and bottling happen right in the sugar house when the syrup is piping hot to keep everything sterile and to seal the jars.
Our goal each season is to make enough maple syrup to serve at our annual pancake breakfast, Pancakes at the Farm. This event is held the first two weekends in March and features our own farm-raised pork sausage. Make your reservation by calling (508) 886-5000 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The sugar makers will be eagerly awaiting your visit!
Turning Sap into Syrup
- Identify a stand of sugar maple trees. Pro tip: Mark sugar maple trees before they lose their leaves in the fall, since identifying the trees by their leaves is much easier than identifying solely by the bark.
- On the south side of the tree, drill a 3-inch hole about 4 feet above the ground at a slight upward angle. Use a 7/16-inch drill bit. Use a hammer to gently tap in a spile, or spout. You can tap one spile for every 10 inches of tree diameter.
- Hang collection containers from the spiles. Coffee cans, milk jugs and buckets all work well for this.
- Drip, drip, drip! Sap will fill the bucket as pressure builds in the tree from the alternating freeze and thaw temperatures.
- Boil the sap indoors on a stovetop or outdoors over a fire. At Heifer Farm, we use a largescale evaporator in a sugar house.
- Sap is officially maple syrup when it reads 66 percent sugar content on a hydrometer or 219 degrees on a candy thermometer.
- Strain the hot syrup through felt or cheesecloth.
- Bottle the syrup while it’s hot, or can it in a boiling water bath for longer storage.
- Store at room temperature in a cool, dark location or in the refrigerator or freezer.
- Enjoy on pancakes, waffles and French toast. Real maple syrup is also great for sweetening beverages and flavoring salad dressing, vegetables, meat and baked goods.
Maple Sugaring Fun Facts
• You can tap other species of maple trees, but the sugar maple has the highest concentration of sugar in the sap.
• Flavor and translucence dictate maple syrup grades. Generally, the time of year the sap is collected determines the grade—the lighter grades are produced earlier in the season and the darker grades are produced later.
• Pure maple syrup comes from trees, while most pancake syrups are made from high-fructose corn syrup and flavorings. These syrups cannot include the word “maple” on their label.
• To substitute maple syrup for granulated white sugar in cooking or baking, use 2/3 cup of maple syrup for every 1 cup of sugar. Reduce the quantity of liquid in the recipe by 3 tablespoons and lower the baking temperature by 25 degrees.