Making syrup in Southwest

Teresa Marrone shares how to make maple syrup from home

LYNNHURST — It’s a warm, sunny April morning as Teresa Marrone tends to four gallons of what looks like water, boiling in a pot over a propane turkey burner in her backyard.

By late afternoon, that bubbling liquid — which is actually sap collected from two maple trees in Marrone’s front yard — will be reduced to a little less than two cups of pancake-ready syrup.

Marrone, a freelance writer and author of several outdoor cookbooks, has been making syrup at her 54th Street and Oliver Avenue home for three years, but she wrote about syrup production and helped friends make the sweet stuff long before doing it on her own. She lived with her maples for nearly two decades before drilling a tap, mostly because she was skeptical about how much sap two trees could produce.

Turns out that during the peak of the mid-March to mid-April syrup season, the trees pumped out a combined six gallons of sap a day, enough to make more than a gallon of syrup by the time the taps dried.

“This is something I had always wanted to do,” Marrone said. “It just hadn’t ever occurred to me to do it.” 

Making syrup at home is fairly simple for those with the right trees. Marrone shared how:

Find a syrup-producing tree — either a sugar maple, red maple, silver maple or boxelder will do. Marrone said the hallmarks of these trees are shaggy bark and branches that grow opposite one another. A tree must be minimum of 10-inches in diameter to support a tap. A tree with a diameter of 13 inches or more can support two taps.

Wait until March, when the temperature is below freezing at night and above freezing during the day. The change in temperature creates a pressure differential in trees that causes them to suck in water at night and pump it out to branches during the day. The water becomes sap when it’s combined with sugars and nutrients in the wood.

Drill a 5/8ths-inch hole about  two inches deep into the tree. Drill at a slight angle, so sap can flow down the pipe that will be inserted. The height and placement of the hole doesn’t matter, Marrone said, though some syrup harvesters claim sap flows better above a large root. Drill a new hole each season, so the old ones can heal. Insert a 6-inch copper or PVC pipe in the hole.

Cut a groove in the top of a plastic milk jug so the pipe will fit. Hang the jug from the tree using a nail and wire. A larger bucket might have to be used at trees that can’t be tended to regularly. Even Marrone, who works from home and can check on her trees regularly, has used three-gallon buckets at the peak of the season.

Dump three-to-four gallons of collected sap in a pot and bring it to a boil outside, either over a turkey fryer burner or wood fire. Marrone said she prefers the burner because of her city residence.
“A fire is the traditional, romantic way to do it,” she said. This boil has to happen outside because the steam is sticky and could destroy walls, or at least make a big mess, Marrone said. Boil the sap down to about two quarts.

Strain the sap through a fine cloth, such as a bed sheet, into a one-gallon pot. Continue boiling inside on the stove until the sap is down to around two quarts. Be careful not to let the sap boil over, something Marrone has experience with.
“When that gets out on the stove, man, it’s terrible,” she said. “It’s stickier than all get out.”

When the syrup reaches 7 degrees above the boiling point of water, it’s done. Thermometers can vary, so if you want to be absolutely sure on the temperature, you can heat a pot of plain water first and check the boiling temperature. Just add 7 degrees for the syrup.

Pour the syrup into a canning jar and let settle. Fine grains called sugar sand will eventually fall to the bottom. The syrup can be moved again to another jar to get rid of the sugar sand, but it’s not harmful. It can be used as a sugar substitute for cooking, Marrone said.

In a day’s work, clear sap that tastes like sweetened water can be made into amber syrup that has a distinct natural maple flavor. It’s not as thick and sugary as the syrup at the grocery store and the shades vary. Marrone said her finished syrup is almost clear at the start of the season and gradually gets darker.

This year, she started making syrup around March 10 and the taps dried up around April 10. Some seasons are as short as two weeks, she said.   

Marrone said she doesn’t make enough syrup to sell. Some goes to friends and family, but most is kept for herself and partner Bruce Bohnenstingle.

“I’m not a big fan of pancakes,” Bohnenstingle said. “But we find different ways to use it and it certainly makes pancakes worth eating.”

Marrone’s maples have given her plenty to work with — a shelf of syrup jars that’ll last her until it’s time to tap again next year.

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]