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Tapping our love of maple syrup
New book delves into Minnesotans’ fondness for the sweet, gooey liquid
Last week, the only thing I knew about pure maple syrup was that I liked it on pancakes, and that it somehow came from the sap of maple trees.
It’s hard to imagine how a liquid can come from a solid tree. Now, after reading the new book “Modern Maple” by Teresa Marrone of Minneapolis and attending a talk she gave at the Minnesota History Center, my knowledge of maple syrup has expanded a great deal.
Here’s what I learned:
• Pure maple syrup is only produced in the northeastern quarter of the United States and adjoining Canadian provinces and NO other place in the world.
• Maple syrup can also be made from sap from the boxelder tree.
• About 40 gallons of sap are needed to make one gallon of syrup.
• Maple syrup is a tasty ingredient that can be used in many different recipes.
• The sap from the tree is a clear color, but after boiling off the water, it turns amber and sweet.
And there’s more ...
Mid-March to early April is the time for collecting sap and processing it into maple syrup. That’s when the temperature goes from below freezing at night to above freezing during the day. This is when the sap travels from the roots up into the tree.
“Sap is collected during the time this freeze-thaw cycle occurs regularly,” Marrone writes. The springtime sap that drips slowly from maple and boxelder trees is definitely not the sweet liquid we’re familiar with. It looks like water when it comes from the tree.
Actually, sugar maple sap contains about 2 percent sugar so it must be boiled and reduced so that the sugar concentration is 66 percent. This is why it takes 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of finished syrup.
According to Marrone, sugar maple trees are the best for getting sap, but black, silver and red maples, and even the boxelder, which is in the maple family, can be used as well. Since boxelder trees have less sugar concentrated in their sap, about 60 gallons of sap are required to produce 1 gallon of syrup.
The trees must be a certain size before they can be tapped. For people wanting to make their own syrup, Marrone cautions, “Make sure the tree is large enough so you can drill a tap hole without injuring the tree.”
She figures the minimum tree diameter is at least 31 inches around, and that size can support one tap.
A hole is drilled in the tree and a “spile” is inserted, from which the sap can flow into a pail or plastic bag fastened on the tree. Metal or plastic spiles or half-inch copper pipe are commonly used.
Marrone says a tree can give 40 to 50 gallons of sap but the amount varies based on size. Her two backyard trees have produced up to 200 gallons of sap a year, which yielded five gallons of syrup. “The production varies from year to year,” she said. “The kids in the neighborhood love to help.”
After the sap is collected, it is boiled, preferably on a stove outdoors since a large amount of water has to be cooked off.
Over the years the process to make maple syrup has remained relatively the same, however, it is now made using more modern equipment.
While Canada produces 80 percent of the commercial maple syrup, many hobbyists make maple syrup in their backyards.
Roseville resident Yul Yost has collected gallons of sap from his woods in Anoka County. He recalls the year he was boiling the sap on a stove equipped with a 6-inch stovepipe in his backyard on Fairview Avenue, and about an hour into the session a Roseville Fire Department truck stopped in front of his house.
Yost chuckles as he recalls offering the firefighters pancakes with maple syrup as they sat around the stove enjoying the springtime ambiance. Then Yost asked them, “How did you know I was syruping?” Well, they didn’t, but added that a neighbor called City Hall claiming Yost had an illegal fire in his backyard. The fire crew said the homemade stove setup was interesting and told him the syrup was delicious.
David Peterson of Howard Lake makes maple syrup both as a hobby and a business.
“I try to make money out of the hobby,” he explains. Four years ago he made his first gallon of syrup. “Last year was the worst year on record,” he says, because it was so unseasonably warm. Thanks to this spring’s slow thaw and favorable temperatures, he hopes to make 50 gallons of syrup.
Marrone mentioned the effects of climate change during her talk and how it could negatively impact maple syrup production in the future. “Last year (with the unusually warm spring) may be what is to come,” she says.
A versatile ingredient
Maple syrup is a tasty sweet treat, which combines well with many foods.
The recipes in “Modern Maple,” which was published in March by the Minnesota Historical Society, are tried and tested by Marrone, her friends and relatives. She explains she wanted some of the recipes tested in ovens other than hers just to make sure the quality was consistent and the food would always turn out well. She tried making maple fudge but due to inconsistent results, decided not to include the recipe in the book.
Maple syrup can be used in a myriad of recipes ranging from breakfast dishes, salads, snacks, soups, breads, beverages, vegetables and sides, main courses, desserts and even pizza.
The salads are some of her favorite recipes. The “Red Cabbage and Berry Salad” recipe came from a fluke. “I came up with this combination one day when I was staring down a half of a red cabbage lurking in the crisper drawer.”
Suddenly, she was inspired to combine it with blueberries and raspberries, and the result was really delicious. “I’m sure it’s chock-full of vitamins and antioxidants; deep purple, red or blue foods simply radiate good health.”
“Pizza with Brie, Caramelized Onions, Basil, and Maple” was the recipe I was eager to try -- with a few adjustments. Skipping over the instructions to make the crust, I bought dough from the grocery store and easily spread it out on the pan to save time. The amount of Brie can be adjusted depending on your taste for cheese. I loved the onions caramelized with the maple syrup and overall will definitely make the recipe again and again.
The “Kale with Carrots and Maple Dressing” sounds colorful and very nutritious.
The “Creamy Maple Butter” looks like a recipe to try and keep in the refrigerator. Marrone writes, “This slightly soft, creamy butter is fabulous on toast, pancakes or anything else you’d spread butter on.” I can imagine it on cooked carrots and for simplicity, will make the Variation: “Whipped Maple Butter” rather than the cooked version.
Originally from Wisconsin, Marrone studied graphic arts and design in college and has a degree in fine arts.
Friends took her to a sugar bush camp for making maple syrup and introduced her to the process during college days. Her love of the outdoors grew and grew and now she considers herself an “amateur naturalist.” This led her to write cookbooks on wild berries and fruits of four different states -- Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa. She also authored a field guide on mushrooms, and currently is writing a book about dried foods.
But this week you won’t find her sitting at her desk, fingers flying over her computer keyboard as she works on her latest book.
Instead she will be outdoors, putting into practice the tips she offers in the “Modern Maple” chapter entitled “Backyard sugaring: making maple syrup in your yard.”
Vonny Rohloff can be reached at email@example.com or at 651-748-7861.
Collecting sap goes back generations in Minnesota
No one knows exactly when or how sap from the maple trees was first gathered and turned into syrup or who first worked on the process. But, back in the 1600s when explorers and missionaries came to the Northeast region of the United States and Canada, they observed Native Americans making maple syrup and then using it in food preparation and as a restorative drink.
Making maple syrup was a big production for the indigenous peoples and a lot of work. Since many of the tribes did not have salt, the maple syrup and granulated maple sugar helped flavor their food.
In the early spring the Ojibwe women in Minnesota trudged through snowy woods and set up the sugar camp.
Marrone writes, “In the earliest days, Indians collected and processed sap in vessels made of birch bark or wood; red-hot stones were dropped into the vessels to boil off excess water, thereby concentrating the sugar content of the remaining liquid to produce syrup.
“As an alternative, sap was poured into shallow vessels and allowed to freeze partially; the Indians repeatedly discarded the ice that formed on the surface, leaving behind ever-sweeter liquid that eventually was reduced to a sweet, thick, brown syrup.”
Further cooking the liquid syrup resulted in a granulated sugar, which was easier to transport.
Eventually, the Indians acquired heavy metal kettles from trade with the European settlers, who learned the maple syrup process from the American Indians.
Antonia von Hoeffern, sister of the Slovenian missionary Bishop Frederic Baraga who translated and recorded the Ojibwa language, wrote to her sister Amalia Gressel in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 1838. Hoeffern observed the process of making maple syrup and wrote: “Greetings from Arcadia; the land where honey flows (or sugar water). I could watch in comfort as the water became transformed into sugar in the tranquil kettles over the fire. It is a most simple but tedious preparation.
“The sugar water is not sweeter than when one adds a teaspoon of refined sugar to a cup of water. It is simmered again, but it requires some time to make a gallon of syrup. Then one removes it from the fire and stirs it until it becomes a fine powder, and that is the Indian sugar.”
— Vonny Rohloff