they would [maple] sugar but for so much boiling

“Some time in February, we scaffolded up our fur and skins, and moved about ten miles in search of a [maple] sugar camp or a suitable place to make sugar. . . . We had no large kettles with us this year, and the squaws made the frost, in some measure, supply the place of fire, in making sugar. Their large bark vessels, for holding the stock-water, they made broad and shallow; and as the weather is very cold here, it frequently freezes at night in sugar time; and the ice they break and cast out of the vessels. I asked them if they were not throwing away the sugar? they said no; it was water they were casting away, sugar did not freeze and there was scarcely any in that ice. They said I might try the experiment, and boil some of it, and see what I would get. I never did try it; but I observed that after several times freezing, the water that remained in the vessel, changed its colour and became brown and very sweet.”

–James Smith, in his An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith, of 1799. I found it in Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984).

McGee goes on to note that “Despite the last sentence, this early version of freeze-drying would not of itself have turned the sap brown and developed the rich flavors we associate with maple syrup; these are the result of browning reactions that require high temperatures. In all likelihood, the nightly frosts were used to reduce the sap to volumes more easily handled in clay pots.”

This isn’t accurate, the bit about caramelization, incidentally, as any neophyte sugarer who has tried to make dark grade B syrup out of Fancy grade sap can tell you—and I can verify, from experience, that indeed freeze-concentrated sap does darken of its own accord. But as he says, freezing will only take sap so far, no matter how cold it is on however many successive sugaring nights, and the effect ultimately of this freeze-drying is only to reduce the volume of liquid that must be boiled to a more manageable level, for cooking in clay pots or indoor kitchens alike, or (as could be much more widely done that it is at present), to reduce fuel consumption for professional operations considerably.

In a primitive fashion this is still done, small producers who still use buckets typically discarding the ice that forms in the top of their buckets every morning, but the technique, I think, will bear refining. I suggest also broad and shallow pans, perhaps sleds, if you have them, and are on the cheap, as I am. I’ve also fantasized about putting such pans in a greenhouse, to freeze at night and evaporate by solar energy by day. Dunno. Might be worth trying, for the types who might try it.

The syrup itself, freeze concentrated and before you boil it, is, besides being quite thin, a little more fresh and tree-ee tasting. I’m sure a market could be developed for it, raw syrup or somesuch. Naturally, I plan to ferment it one of these years.

But the question of volume, how one must boil off forty gallons of sap for one gallon of syrup, and how this can have a way of steaming the wallpaper down in your kitchen if done too quickly, to say nothing of the fuel usage—is a key impediment to the home sugarer. Still, using this method or no, I recommend home sugaring, even if only from one or two trees. A quart of syrup boiled off slowly on the wood stove is free, and will hurt nothing.

Apologies for overlap with the previous post.


2 Comments on “they would [maple] sugar but for so much boiling”

  1. Caitlin says:

    Yes, and if you have a woodstove going anyways and hard maple trees within proximity to the house, whyever not boil down some sap? Makes the house smell wonderful and it truly has a more complex taste than the syrup made using modern technology such as osmosis, plastic tubing and extreme filtering. Don’t know why we didn’t start doing this years ago.

  2. Dawn Huenink says:

    I wish I still had all the buckets from my sugar bush at the inn. We had a great stand of sugar maples with a sugar house down near the stream that ran though it. Beautiful. we used to boil sap and use cream if started to boil over.


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