Our gardens in many lights

lundi 5 mai 2014

No need to boil our maple sap to use it

Cet article en français.
Este artículo en español.

Louise :
Spring's finally here; we have a tenant to prove it too!
Our new tenant, the proverbial groundhog, established residency under the garden shed. We can see it bask in the sunshine, between the rainwater barrel and the wheelbarrow.
After a winter seasonned by two ice storms; a winter that was cold and seemingly unending, the maple syrup harvest started slowly and only at the beginning of April; not surprising, considering the month's weather. A mediocre production to booth, but it's always educational to have such hardships. First of all, an unexpected happenstance made us reconsider the way we boil our syrup and in the end, we learned how to appreciate maple sap in many other ways. Finally, we filtered our product for the first time.

The unforseen : 
Here's the look of the oven's top
after about 6 hours of cooking on

medium to high temperatures
(and before any attempts of scrubbing).
Last year we were shocked to find out that whatever we boiled on our stove had the unfortunate effect of premature wear on it, since it's a new appliance. Thus, I have to warn you of this possibility in your own kitchen. 

First and foremost, for many years we boiled maple syrup on our old stove without any itch. It was a 60's oven, made to last.

With this new oven, a low end model in white enamel, it's just not the same. With only a few years under its belt, it's becoming harder and harder to clean the thing. Making those tiny droplets of caramelized syrup disappear requires a good scrub, something the oven doesn't appreciate. Indeed, the white enamel is not of good quality and tend to scratch easily. Dirt lodges in those scratches and is hard to dislodge. 

I feel that we needed to speak of it on this blog, to warn readers. So how could we change our boiling technique to prevent this problem? There are a couple of alternative methods that I will present you further down this post, but the easiest solution is also the most obvious: use maple sap directly.

Ah! Divine maple juice!

What to do with all this sap? Drinking it, of course, is delicious. It's filled with loads of nutriments, floating in the sap. It can be kept a couple of days in the fridge. It nicely replaces your morning glass of juice and is very quenching. Small note: drink it in moderation to make sure it doesn't have an adverse effect on yourself. Some people have a tendancy to suffer diarrhea after drinking maple sap. As for me, no effect at all. Nope!  I could drink this stuff all day long.
It's also possible to freeze maple sap for future use. But it's useful to be aware that while freezing, the nutriments and sugars separate from the water and are the last to freeze. When unfreezing, it is the opposite, solid elements will thaw first. Thus, if you want a very sugary sap, don't wait for the entire bottle to thaw. Of course, this means that the remaining block of ice will mostly be water.
If you'd rather have the same amount of sugars as before freezing the bottle, let it thaw completely before pouring yourself a drink.
I reused plastic juice bottles to freeze my sap. Note the ice is whiter at the top of the bottle; this isn't a light effect, it's the sugars and nutriments that have gone up while the water was freezing.
This year then, we froze our maple sap for the very first time. It's easy to do, and because of the relatively high amount of sugar (3 to 5%), the maple sap doesn't expand all that much when frozen. I imagine it is similar with the sap from black maples, a species that produces a sap with similar sugar contents, but maybe it is different with other species of maples because they have less sugar content.
The maple sap is filtered before being put in the freezer. I discovered that a bottle almost three quarters full can be frozen without any spill. We just put it in the freezer without its cap for an hour or two. Once the content is frozen solid, the bottle is filled to the brim.
At this point, if you touch the surface of the ice, it will feel soft and sticky. Taste it: It's very sweet. Just screw the cap back on the bottle and voilà ! 

The separation that occurs between the sugar and water contents during the freezing process brought some researchers from Laval University to work on a way (this article is in French) to produce maple syrup from maple sap by successive freezings, the idea being to take the frozen water out of the sap as it's forming, since that frozen water contains very little of the maple sugar needed to do the syrup.

Remember that only one tap from a tree can produce up to 40 liters of sap, during the good years of course. So, depending how much you can store in your freezer, you may be set for a good while.

Why not use maple sap in cooking?

So we can use maple sap like fruit juice. My husband and I drank about twenty liters already this year and gave some to friends and family.  But it has many other tasty applications: added to drinks or as an ingredient in recipes, for example.
At the suggestion of a reader, Isabel, I used the sap to replace water or other liquids in a variety of soups: carrot, squash, even chicken, noodle and corn. I still have to try it in a turnip soup! I used the sap in smoothies, in cakes and cake frosting. I cooked meat  stews and ham in it. I deglazed my steaks with it. There are so many ways to use this tasty liquid !
Recently, producers made it possible throughout the year to buy maple sap in grocery stores. It can be used as such or you can boil it. The link above gives many recipes using small quantities of maple sap. Up to you to experiment with it. All of this also points to the fact that you could harvest maple sap even if you don't plan on boiling it down to a syrup.

As for the syrup itself, my friend Carmen told me she saw on the internet a spring detox with maple syrup, lemon juice and cayenne pepper. I searched and rapidly found this recipe. I haven't tried it myself, but I still point it out in case you are interested.

Regarding other ways to boil maple syrup, here are other solutions:

First off, if you aren't too much in a hurry, a wood stove is very good to slowly evaporate maple sap. We don't have one in our house, however.

Our first new method was with the aforementionned electric stove, but boiling the sap on low instead of medium-high. There's less droplets that way and thus, less caramelization on the stove itself. It works well, but if you have a lot of maple water to go through, it's not ideal since the process takes a lot longer.

An acquaintance of my sister said his parents used to put a big pot of maple sap to simmer for an entire night, before going to bed. The morning after, most of the evaporation was done with and they ended up with a thicker liquid ready to be boiled down to syrup. We used that method but only in daytime, while we can keep an eye on it, for safety reasons. It's efficient, not as hard on the appliance, less demanding from us since we don't feel obligated to stick around the pot at every moment and the heat being not as intense, it contributes to the heating of the house in a more uniform manner.

The second method we tried this year: the use of the BBQ or a portable cooker - both using propane gas. Someone lend us a portable cooking burner similar to this one. In good conditions, it's efficient but not at all economical. Furthermore, we had to place it in a sheltered spot because of the wind and the cold. In our experience, the maple syrup produced that way cost at least as much as the one sold at the grocery store.

The third method we haven't tried yet: In our garden shed, we have a wood stove. No chance this year: Our wood normally attributed to this stove was used for another project. We are used to collect free wood from our own yard - dead wood from the nice amount of trees we own - so buying a wood cord was out of the question.

The fourth method: building a rocket stove, a small outside stove that creates a lot of heat with a small amount of wood, mostly small branches and wood scraps. You can't burn a log in that kind of oven.
A rocket stove is very economic, easy to build and disassemble, but you have to respect the optimal proportions for the chimney and hearth if you want it as efficient and smoke-free as possible. It means you can't use any kind of bricks or cement blocks. Our prototype made smoke, which means the stove wasn't burning the combustion gases and so, it wasn't producing as much heat as it could have (while creating some pollution too). The sap evaporation was thus going slowly, like on a normal wood stove. Our design needs to be tweaked and I'll talk about it more at a later time.

Finally, thank you Glenn, for your suggestion in a comment dating 21 april 2014 (link in French to our previous article about maple syrup). If I find one of these old crock pots from the 70s, I'll try it!

Long live filters!
 This year, my husband bought a sheet of white felt used to filter maple syrup. It was bought in a specialty store for maple syrup production equipments. We used a square of small dimension that fitted on a funnel.
We doubled it with a coffee filter that caught the biggest particles.
Then, we poured the boiling syrup slowly through both filters. As time passed, the filters were filled with solid particles and the syrup was getting colder and colder which slowed down the filtration process, so much so the first cups of syrup were filtered in minutes while the rest took a couple of hours. It's an endeavour that requires patience to say the least.
But the result was worth it since this process eliminated the deposits at the bottom of the jars.
I recently learned that this deposit comes from the maple sap itself. It's made of the minerals that are naturally present in the sap. During the evaporation process, these minerals crystallize and end up at the bottom of the syrup. The syrup is thus absolutely edible even if there's a deposit.

Next time, we plan on filtering our produce before it becomes a syrup: just when it's somewhat thick, so we can filter it faster and then start the evaporation process again until it becomes a syrup. This way, we could pour the boiling syrup in our jars in order to seal the covers. 
Pure, filtered maple syrup.

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