How to Make a Half-Gallon of Maple Syrup in 20 Easy Steps

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1. In October, buy 50 buckets, lids, and taps, and a nice-looking sugaring pan, from a lady who advertised on Craigslist. Total outlay: $400. What a deal! She also includes two 55-gallon barrels, and many 5-gallon pails. This is going to be great! You’ve lived in Vermont for many years—it’s about time you did this. Back to the land!

2. In November, join with your children to identify and give names to 50 sugar-maple trees on your property. You and the kids come up with some great names like “Two-tap Su-gar” (like the rapper), “Geyser Söze,” “Old Faithful,” “New Faithful,” and “Spouty” (like the Carvel whale, only different). Place adorable nametags on the 50 trees. Fifty trees should yield about 500 gallons of sap, or 10-12 gallons of syrup. This is going to be amazing!

3. Also in November, take delivery of a cord of kiln-dried hardwood. Sure, it costs a bit more ($320 vs. $250 for regular-dried), but it’s worth it.

4. Later that month, buy 30 cinder blocks and lug them up to what will soon be your sugaring camp. Build an “arch”—a sugaring fireplace. And here’s a bonus. On a visit to the town dump, pick up a few sections of metal chimney, and some scrap metal. Try to fashion the scrap into a plate on which your chimney can rest. If your tried-and-true tin snips aren’t up to the job, order some new ones from Amazon. Great, they work! You’ve made your arch.

5. Throughout the long winter, read many books about maple sugaring. Everyone says it’s a lot of hard work, but worth the trouble. Night after sub-zero night, dream of a tide of syrup, flowing endlessly into the bottles you’ve collected and the Mason jars you’ve bought. Wow, what are you going to do with it all? Give it away, of course! Just think of all the friends and family who will be so delighted with a pint of Vermont Grade-A amber! You’re going to have to bear gracefully with all the compliments you’ll get. And you’ll have syrup all year to pour on pancakes, waffles, ice cream, yogurt … everything! Try to name a food that doesn’t go better with maple syrup. That’s right, you can’t.

6. In February, check your cordless drill. Wait, it doesn’t work? That’s surprising. Order a new battery from Amazon. Wait, the new battery doesn’t work? Crap, it must be the charger. Order a new charger from Amazon. It works! Okay, now you’re ready!

7. It’s early March. The temperature is rising. It’s time to tap. Take your drill out, follow the guidance in the books, install the taps, and hang the buckets. Wow, that went better than you thought. Just a few hours, and all the buckets are hung. Sure, the snow is pretty deep—it’s up to your thighs in places. But hey, this is exciting. What’s a little snow?

8. Time for a test boil. Uncover the firewood, and discover it’s covered with mold. Hmmm, I thought they said it was kiln-dried? Try to start the fire, but run out of both matches and butane in the fireplace lighter. Back to the store! Okay, now it’s going pretty good, everything seems to be working, although the six inches of solid ice in the fireplace is making life difficult. The water in the pan doesn’t quite come to a boil, but you’re sure you can fix this by getting a better draft going and making the arch burn hotter.

9. The temperature rises a bit, and you check a few buckets. You’ve got sap! Collect all the sap from your buckets, and carry it to your storage barrels, by dumping the buckets into 5-gallon pails. Five gallons of sap weigh 55 pounds. Carry a 55-pound pail through three feet of snow for 250 mostly-uphill feet. After a few runs, put on your snowshoes, whose straps promptly break. Sneer at the injustice of the world, and improvise a solution with twine. Collecting the sap will take every molecule of energy in your body. But you do it! At the end, you’ve got about 50 gallons, ready to boil. All right!

10. Three days later, it’s the weekend, and here we go! But wait—all the sap you collected is frozen solid. The temperature has plunged to 10 degrees the last few nights, because this is the Winter That Never Ends. Oh well—you’ll just have to wait till it’s thawed.

11. The weather warms again—and you collect more sap. Your first storage barrel is still frozen, but you fill the second barrel with 55 gallons of fresh sap. This is amazing! Tomorrow, you’ll finally be making maple syrup. Golden, delicious, genuine Vermont maple syrup. Cue the cameras!

12. The next day, head out to the sugar camp, and take the lid off that second barrel. It is empty. Pick your jaw up off your chest, turn the barrel over, and see a tiny hole in the snow. Ponder it for a while, and conclude that there is a miniscule leak along the seam of this plastic barrel. You’ve somehow lost 55 gallons of sap into the snow. And that first 55 gallons? It’s still frozen. You head back to the house, where you open a beer, even though it is 8 a.m.

13. Wait two weeks, until early April. The temperature warms again. The sap is running. Collect another 55 gallons in your second storage barrel—only this time you drape a plastic garbage bag inside the barrel to prevent leaks. The snow is only two feet deep now, so collecting sap is practically a leisure activity! It’s like shuffleboard, or tiddlywinks! Life is a dream!

14. It’s again time to boil, but you can’t wait for the weekend—that’s when you’re traveling on business. So you must boil during the week, while you’re finalizing the materials for the meeting. You will receive and respond to an email approximately every 90 seconds, and will fit in the sugaring by running out to your sugar camp in a panic every 45 minutes or so to throw more moldy wood on the fire, see how things are progressing, and say a prayer.

15. The sap isn’t quite boiling, but it is steaming, and seems to be shrinking in volume. Keep adding more sap to the pan, and wood to the fire, while the cellphone in your pocket rings, and rings, and … You have built your arch so that the prevailing winds from the west will blow the smoke away. Today the prevailing winds are from the east. Never mind.

16. It’s now 7 p.m. on the busiest day of your year. You have been boiling for 13 hours and have near-syrup in your pan. Ask your teenage son to help you transfer it to the nice finishing pan you bought from Amazon. Your teenage son will drop his side of the sugaring pan, spilling about a third of the near-syrup you have spent all day making into the fire. Never mind.

17. Bring your finishing pan into the house, put it on the stove, and continue boiling. Wait, what’s that? It looks like your finishing pan has a leak. How could that be? You bought it from Amazon! And yet it’s dripping sugary fluid onto the ceramic stovetop. Wait, wasn’t that the one thing that the manufacturer said you shouldn’t do? It seems like the sugary syrup is etching holes into the surface of the stovetop. And the steam seems to be liquefying the grease on the overhead fan, which is now dripping into the pan. Turn off the stove, clean up the stovetop, put the pan in the basement where it can’t hurt anything, and collapse weeping into bed.

18. Okay, it’s the next day, and now you’ve got a leaky pan with about 5 gallons of near-syrup. What to do? Drag out that hotplate from the basement, set it up outside, put the pan on it, and start cooking. Meantime, keep up with that J-O-B—you know, the one that pays the bills. This is the second-busiest day of the year, and you will receive another 150 emails that require instant responses. Check in on the pan cooking on the hotplate. If only it weren’t 15 degrees outside, it would probably be boiling. Keep it slowly steaming all day long.

19. Take the pan inside and transfer the contents to a couple of saucepans to finish it off. Dig out the two candy thermometers you bought during the winter from Amazon, and put them in the liquid. These are great tools that will tell you when the liquid has reached 219 degrees and thus become syrup. One will say that the boiling liquid is 200 degrees, and the other will say that it is 230 degrees. Test them both in a pan of boiling water. Neither is within 15 degrees of the known boiling point of water. Throw both thermometers in the garbage.

20. You’ve been boiling inside for hours now, and you think it looks like syrup. It’s 10 p.m. Give up. Turn off the stove, and pour the contents into two Mason jars. You have two quarts of runny, dark, smoke-laced syrup. Eat some with a spoon. Nothing has ever tasted so sweet. Congratulations—you’re a sugar-maker!