Last month my husband and I decided to experiment with making maple syrup out of sap we collected from box elders at the American West Heritage Center. Box elders aren’t the most sought-after tree–they’re sort of the gawky cousin of the maple family–but they do produce maple sap.
Sugar was an important commodity for Utah’s pioneers. Before Utah’s sugar beet industry took off, pioneers often had to make do with types of molasses, but they realized that native canyon maples, bigtooth maples, and box elders could be tapped for their sweet sap.
We opted to use modern equipment for our first syrup making experiment: plastic buckets with lids, plastic spiles, and rubber tubes. We got our instructions from this Ohio State Extension web site. The process of collecting the sap went pretty smoothly, once we identified a couple of box elders in their winter nudity (you have to collect it before the buds start to swell or it tastes bad). We got about a gallon of maple sap per tree per day when the weather was warm enough for the sap to flow. The sap is clear and watery and has an odd, woody taste, I imagine rather like chewing on a twig.
The next step of the syrup-making process wasn’t difficult either. We put the maple sap in a large pot and let it boil on medium-low heat all day. The first day I made the mistake of not watching it closely until I smelled burnt sugar. After my good, patient husband scrubbed out the pot, we tried again the next day, watching it more closely.
This time, we ended up with a thin, light amber colored syrup. It didn’t look much like store bought maple syrup, but it was sweet and had a definite maple taste. It worked just fine on our pancake breakfast. We might have been able to get it thicker if we hadn’t been worried about burning it again. Next year we’ll try evaporating it further to make maple sugar out of it. Yum! We may also try a more old-fashioned approach to gathering the sap, and see if we can get sap from bigtooth and/or canyon maples for comparison.
Making maple syrup was probably a pretty practical way for the pioneers to get sugar in late winter and early spring. The whole process is easy and interesting, but it takes a lot of sap to make your syrup: about a 40-to-1 ratio! This fall we’ll try making some molasses and see which process we like better.
Disclaimer: Don’t eat stuff you find outside unless you’re certain of what it is and that it’s safe for human consumption.