Sugar Season coming soon, Maple Sugar that is.
A long time ago, my high school boyfriend did a winter maple sugar study. He tracked data on trees in the forest behind our school, tapped them, and made maple syrup. It required hours of work boiling off the sap from late January through March, and since I wanted to be with him, I helped with the sugaring. Since then, I've had a soft spot for sugaring. As it turns out Alex (my husband) tapped a few trees in his backyard as a kid.
If you don't know the maple sugar process, here's a quick rundown.
1. Identify sugar maple tree or trees. Red and black maple do have some sugar content in their sap but it is so low that it is almost not worth collecting.
2. Insert metal or plastic 'taps' into trees. You just hammer these an inch or so beyond the bark
3. Hang a bucket or old milk jug off the tap.
4. Collect sap. Sap runs when the nights are below freezing but the days are above freezing temperatures. Usually sugar farmers in Ohio expect a steady harvest around February 14th.
5. Skim off any frozen water. Sap will keep refridgerated for a few days. Leave it out in the snow overnight (if there is snow) and skim the frozen water in the morning. You'll be left with higher sugar content sap.
6. Boil sap in a large outdoor boiler or indoors in large pots. Could probably be done in roasting pans in the oven too. Keep in mind that sap contains between 3 - 4% sugar, and syrup is much more concentrated, so you want big vessels for this.
7. When you've reached syrup consistency, strain through felt to rid syrup of impurities. (You can use a hyrometer and/or thermometer to measure, or just go by feel.)
8. Enjoy! Or boil further to make sugar.
Much more detailed instructions are on the Ohio State University Extension fact sheet.
I'll warn you - sugaring is a lot of effort for a little precious syrup. It is deeply satisfying to follow through the process, but shouldn't be taken on by those short on time.
If you want to simply observe the process, some farms offer great outings. We visit Malabar Farm in north central Ohio for their annual Maple Syrup Festival. They have real life reinactments of historic ways of sugaring up through a working modern production. This year's festival will be held March 7, 8, 14 and 15.