Not many people know that you can make syrup from trees other than the sugar maple. The reason why the sugar maple is so commonly used for syrup is because its sap has the highest sugar content and therefore takes less time to reduce. But if you’re looking to taste something truly special, try experimenting with different types of tree saps. My personal favorites are sycamore syrup and black walnut syrup, or even better, both of them mixed together.
Black walnut trees are very prevalent in the area where we live. You can easily identify the tress in the winter because you can find their nuts and the green husks that surround them spread all over the ground underneath them. The sap that they produce has a yellowish tint. When cooked down, the syrup becomes a rich, dark color and has a slightly nutty flavor.
Sycamore trees can also be recognized quite easily because of their silver-colored trunk and the ever-peeling bark it produces. I have never been able to collect large amounts of sap from these trees and so it is an extra hot commodity in my house. I am not quite sure why they produce so little sap. Maybe I keep missing the exact moment when most of the sap flows, or maybe they just don’t produce as much sap as the other trees. Nevertheless, it is worth a try! Sycamore syrup is slightly lighter in color and tastes a little like butterscotch.
You can also tap just about every other maple tree. I’ve had great success with red, silver and sycamore maples. They produce large quantities of sap – about a gallon a day – and their syrup is much like that of a sugar maple, but less sweet.
When is the best season to tap trees?
Generally, the best time for tapping trees is toward the end of the winter. For us here in Pennsylvania that would be in February/March, but the season really depends on the weather conditions and where you live. You need a period where the temperature goes down below freezing at night and stays above freezing during the day. During a sunny day the sap flow is strongest.
Here’s what you need to start:
- about 10 plastic spiles (or taps) with attached plastic hoses*
- 10 empty plastic jugs (such as the gallon jugs for water) or any other large container with a lid
- 5/16 drill bit
- large pot
- cotton filter
- mason jars or small glass bottles
Tapping the trees:
Select healthy trees that are at least 12 inches in diameter. The tap should be placed on the side of the tree that is facing south for maximum sun exposure. Drill a 2 to 2 1/2 inch hole about three feet from the base of the tree so that the jug that collects the sap can securely sit on the ground. You can wrap a piece of masking tape around your drill bit 2 1/2 inches from the tip so you know when to stop drilling. After you have drilled the tap hole, insert your spile. You can use a mallet to help tapping it in further. Now drill a larger hole in the lid of the plastic jug and put the hose end in. Just nine more trees to go and you’re done!
Wait about 24 hours to see how much sap you’ve collected. On a good day, the entire jug might be filled. If it isn’t full yet, let it sit for another day.
Reducing the sap:
Once you have collected a few gallons of sap, it’s time to reduce it. Get the biggest pot you can find and fill it with your sap. If you have more sap than fits into the pot, add it bit by bit over time. You can boil it down on the stove top or outside if you have one of those fancy turkey deep-fryers or a camping cooker. Just be aware, if you go with the stove-top method, your entire house will feel like a Turkish bath. There will be condensation water everywhere – especially in the kitchen! It will take many hours to cook down. You don’t have to hover over the pot the entire time, of course, but make sure to check on it every once in a while. Once it turns golden, turn it down to a simmer and stir it occasionally. You may want to transfer the syrup to a smaller pot at this point to prevent it from scorching because it will be very hot. Once it has the desired color and sweetness, it is finished.
Now it’s time to filter the syrup. I’ve used coffee filters in the past, but the best are cotton or wool filters designed for making syrup.
Oh, and if you’re wondering how many gallons it took to produce these six itsy-bitsy bottles of syrup – 11 gallons!!
You can store it in a glass jar or bottle in the refrigerator for about two weeks. If you’re planning to store it for a longer period of time, I suggest putting it in the freezer or hot-packing it in sterilized jars.
*I recommend using the plastic spile/hose combo because it is much more economical than the old metal spiles and buckets. They may not look as pretty as the traditional ones, but in order to collect enough sap to ensure a yearly supply of syrup you will need to tap many trees at the same time.