Sweet and sour saga of syrup making

Homemade maple syrup

Maple syrup. Sap, sugar, sweetness–so much goodness. Our maple syrup making this spring has been great–except for one incident that can only be described as terrible.

I try to be a positive person, so we’ll start with the good.

We tapped five maple trees at the start of this month (about two weeks earlier than last year), and we are having such a good run of sap. Warm weather the first week of March brought 30 litres on a good day–way more than last year.

We were a bit overwhelmed. We have only so many large containers to store sap and the fridge was full of food with no space for sap–thank goodness for the cold cellar. We’re low tech syrup makers, so we boil all of our sap on our stove, which takes a long time. Getting 30 litres of sap down to syrup on an average weeknight has made for some very late nights.

But right from the start the syrup was great. Our first run gave us a bit more than 3 litres of very light syrup. (Syrup gets darker as the season progresses. I only photographed our first 1.5 litres).

Homemade maple syrup

A cold spell put the run on hold for a couple of days, then we started again and got about 80 litres of sap over last weekend. When we finished our full weekend of boiling on Sunday night, we had 2.5 litres of incredibly sweet syrup–magic. (See how it’s darker than the first run?)

Homemade maple syrup

The run continued into the start of this week, and by Tuesday evening we had about another 80 litres of sap on its way to syrup.

And then things took a turn.

Early Wednesday morning–very early, 1 am early–something woke me up. A couple of seconds later, the smoke alarm went off. Matt–and a whole lot of smoke–were in the kitchen when I opened the bedroom door. In fact, the smoke was absolutely everywhere. Syrup was pretty much everywhere too.

It had boiled over the pot, flowed across the stove top, overflowed the stove top, ran down onto the floor, behind the cabinet, under the stove, across the kitchen floor. It was a mess like I’ve never seen.

Matt sent the smoking pot outside, and we started sopping up the burned syrup. I’m not quite sure how to describe the next hour. Sticky. Smokey. Smelly. Not how you want to spend the time between 1 and 2 am. Those all apply.

We pulled the stove out of its spot so that we could mop behind and underneath. I mopped again the next morning before I went to work to deal with the residual stickiness. We scraped the stovetop as much as we could but there’s still a black ring of burnt syrup. I’m sure syrup is behind and under the cabinet, but I’m not moving that. The house still smells like burnt sugar three days later. The charred pot is still sitting on the lawn.

Burnt maple syrup

Burnt maple syrup

At the final minute when sap turns into syrup–around 219 degrees Fahrenheit–it gets foamy and bubbles up in the pan. We had both accidentally fallen asleep and missed this magic syrup moment. So the bubbling and foaming accelerated until it took over the whole stove and a portion of the kitchen.

Checking the temperature on maple syrup

Our frustration at losing so much syrup and so many hours of work is significant. However, we completely recognize that we only lost syrup. The red coals of charred sugar that I saw on our stove when I first entered the kitchen on Wednesday morning remind me that our loss could have been much, much worse.

We’re going to try again, though. Matt insists that we not end our syrup season this way. After sub zero temperatures for the past few days, the sap started running again yesterdays\ afternoon. We have a container of sap that will go on the stove this weekend.

And we have a new plan that all boiling stops at midnight, whether we have syrup or not.

Maple syrup. Sap, sugar, sweetness–so much goodness. Sap, sugar, smoke, spills–so terrible.

But more sweetness ahead.

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6 thoughts on “Sweet and sour saga of syrup making

  1. How terrifying!! And what a horrible mess. What plans do you have if you ever do have a fire? Do you have a fire extinguisher on site? I’m sure those red coals are burned into your retinas for awhile; that vision and the might-have-beens will take some time to recede. I don’t imagine anyone who lives on a farm for any length of time doesn’t have some kind of close-call story to tell.
    Here’s an easy clean-up tip for that pot, if hot water won’t melt the charred sugar off: spray it with ammonia and seal it in a ziploc bag, leave it outside overnight and in the morning it should clean right off. Spraying it on the black ring on your stove and somehow covering that tightly with plastic (maybe taping the edges?) might work with that, too. It’s like a miracle, though you don’t want to breathe it in…
    Your syrup looks gorgeous! I’m glad you are continuing on. When I was a teen and learning to drive, I bumped one of our cars into the other one in the driveway. My dad took me around the block and made me get in and drive again, even though I was crying and upset. He said, “You’ve got to get back on the horse right away”. It was good advice, as I could have become a fearful driver given too much time to dwell, but I didn’t.
    Here’s hoping for a smoke-free weekend! And fresh eyes to appreciate all the wonders in life.

    • The reality of where we live is that if we ever have a fire, it will likely be a total loss. We’re a little ways away from a fire station, and we don’t have hydrants where we are. We do have the pond, which is an asset. We’re just very careful, and we do have an extinguisher handy in the kitchen.

      Thanks for your advice about cleaning the pot. We may give that a try.

  2. I’m curious about how you handle so much increased moisture/humidity in your house when boiling the sap. I was always under the impression that the boil should take place outside or in a sap house because it was just too much for a house. Do you have any mold/mildew problems as a result?

    • For the small amount of sap we’re boiling, it’s not an issue for us. We have the exhaust fan over the stove running while we boil, and occasionally the kitchen window gets a bit steamy, but that’s it. If we were making more syrup, I’m sure it would be a different situation (and it would be too much to do in the house, honestly).

  3. I want to cry for you for your mess and near disaster. Of course, it sounds like exactly something I would do. Steve is always on me to keep an eye on whatever I am cooking and not walk away from it. And having to boil something as long as you do syrup, I would have gotten distracted very early on!

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