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It is not known for sure who first discovered the technique of collecting sap and cooking it into maple syrup, but when the first Europeans arrived in North America and had contact with the Native American tribes of the eastern woodlands, they report stories about the consumption of maple sap in Indian lore. Here is a quote from a British Royal Society paper written in 1685: "The Savages of Canada, in the time that the sap rises in the Maple, make an incision in the Tree, by which it runs out; and after they have evaporated eight pounds of the liquor, there remains one pound as sweet ...." A publication in 1912 by the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association credits both Native Americans and French Canadians with "passing on the secrets of sugarmaking." Maple syrup and maple sugar became the household sweetener in the Canadian and American colonies throughout the nineteenth century, instead of refined white cane sugar, raw sugar, or molasses. Maple trees were readily available and a supply of syrup and sugar cakes could be made for the year ahead.
 

     
The Tree
The magnificent rock maple, hard maple, or sugar maple tree (acer saccharum) are the sources of the sap which is converted to Maple Syrup. Any sugar maple with a trunk diameter of 12 inches or more can be "tapped" for making syrup. It takes thirty years for a maple tree to grow to that size.

Springtime is the season for "sugaring", when nights are cold (below freezing) and days are warm. The sap gathering stops abruptly when the weather turns balmy, for the tree's nutrients are being mobilized to feed the leaf buds, and these metabolites cause objectionable off-flavors in syrup. So the sugaring season may be very short, just a few days, or may last for a couple of weeks or more, depending on the weather.
 
Tapping the Tree
The magnificent rock maple, hard maple, or sugar maple tree (acer saccharum) are the sources of the sap which is converted to Maple Syrup. Any sugar maple with a trunk diameter of 12 inches or more can be "tapped" for making syrup. It takes thirty years for a maple tree to grow to that size.

Springtime is the season for "sugaring", when nights are cold below freezing) and days are warm. The sap gathering stops abruptly when the weather turns balmy, for the tree's nutrients are being mobilized to feed the leaf buds, and these metabolites cause objectionable off-flavors in syrup. So the sugaring season may be very short, just a few days, or may last for a couple of weeks or more, depending on the weather.

Boiling the Sap
The boiling of the sap takes place in a "sugarhouse". This is a simple building that shelters boiling operations that is usually uninsulated, with a steam vent in the roof, a concrete floor and space for the evaporator, fuel (either wood or oil) to heat the evaporator and sap storage. The sugarhouse is often located at the base of a hillside and accessible by a road.

Sap is highly perishable and must be boiled at once to make fine syrup. The sap is heated in an "evaporator", which causes large amounts of water to be driven off as steam, leaving syrup. Most evaporators consist of a long firebox (known as the arch) for a wood fire or an oil burner underneath and have shallow, partitioned pans above the heat. The typical sugarmaking evaporator is about five or six feet wide and 16 feet long. After a roaring fire has been started, the cold sap enters the unit at one corner in the rear and moves slowly in a zig-zag flow in the evaporator, around the partitions, steadily increasing in thickness and sugar density. Additional cold sap is fed into the unit in a steady drizzle, float valves maintain the fluid levels and the finished syrup, scalding hot (around 217 F), is filtered and drawn off near the front of the evaporator. When you realize that such an evaporator can process six or seven 40-Gallon barrels of sap in an hour, you can understand how much steam is created which can be seen for miles around, billowing up from the sugarhouse.

It is this boiling process that produces the great maple flavor. Just the right amount of cooking time is crucial! Too much cooking will cause the sugars to start to caramelize, the syrup will darken and a lower-grade syrup is produced; or even worse, it can boil over and scorch, ruining the entire batch! The sugarmaker tests for doneness by holding up a scoop of syrup and letting it drip, watching for "aproning", when the syrup comes off the scoop in a slow curtain or sheet. A thermometer and hydrometer are also employed to ensure perfect density.

These days, a few large operations use superfast evaporators and/or reverse-osmosis units which substantially speed up the boiling time. However, the majority of sugarmakers are without these latest technological enhancements.

When the hot sap is ready and has cooled to 180-200 F, it is poured into containers such as glass, metal cans, or plastic. While some traditionalists prefer their syrup in metal cans, the new high-density plastic jugs are gaining favor, and some prefer to display the natural beauty of syrup in sparkling clear glass.

Maple candy is made by heating finished maple syrup to a temperature of about 237 F, then cooling it to 155, stirring and pouring it into molds to harden. Maple Cream is made by bringing the syrup to 234 F, then cooling to about 70 and stirring rapidly to whip air into it. This maple spread is sometimes called maple butter. Granulated maple sugar is another maple product, made by cooking syrup to about 238 and stirred hot, producing a coarse textured sugar.
 



 
Grades of Syrup
Maple syrup must be graded and labeled properly, in accordance with the color scale standards approved by the state the syrup is produced in (or province, in Canada). These grading designations for color are not uniform in all states and provinces. Although proper cooking affects the grade of the syrup, the quality of the sap also affects its grade, as well as the length of time the sap stands before being boiled. Often the first run of the season will produce the lightest, most delicately flavored syrup. In Vermont, syrup is graded as to flavor and clarity, as well. Most grading systems use the following USDA designations:

Grade A - This is the best grade of syrup and is divided into Light Amber, Medium Amber, and Dark Amber. These terms refer not only to color, but also to flavor; the darker the color, the more intense the flavor. In Vermont, the official designation for Grade A Light Amber is Fancy, having a light color with a delicate, sweet maple flavor.

Grade B - This is a dark, strongly flavored syrup with good maple flavor and overtones of caramel; generally used for cooking or in the production of other food products.

Grade C - This is a commercial-grade syrup, very dark and not generally for sale to consumers. This is used in commercial cooking and is often found in the "table syrup" blends.

Pure maple syrup contains a single ingredient: maple syrup; nothing added, nothing taken away, except water. Biochemically, real maple syrup is mostly sucrose, with a small portion of glucose and fructose. A tablespoon of maple syrup contains 50 calories, 29 grams of carbohydrates, a negligible amount of sodium and no protein, fat, or cholesterol.
 
Using Maple Syrup
Unopened syrup stores easily, unrefrigerated. However, prolonged storage may cause the color of maple syrup to darken and the flavor may deteriorate, thus it is recommended to store maple syrup in the freezer. This is the best way to prevent any chance of spoilage and to keep the syrup at its peak of quality. If a thin layer of mold develops on an opened container of syrup, it can safely be peeled off and the syrup resterilized by bringing it briefly to 180 (a brief, light boil) and then rebottling it. The syrup may darken, but the flavor should still be unaffected.

"Sugar On Snow" is the traditional springtime treat! Freshly made syrup is taken at about 234 F and poured while hot, over clean snow. The syrup suddenly turns waxy and is eaten like candy, along with doughnuts and sour pickles (as an antidote to the sweetness!).

Although most people use maple syrup in just one way, over pancakes or waffles, there are many, many ways to use maple syrup; as a sauce over ice cream or puddings, a tasty glaze poured over ham, baked in the hollow of a winter squash, in many other dishes, and even in many elaborate "gourmet" recipes.