FAMILY FUN IN NEW JERSEY: Maple sugaring. Yes, any Australians like me will probably say ‘what the heck is that’? Well if you’ve heard of maple syrup, then you’re half way there. Maple sugaring is simply the process of making maple syrup, which is not only interesting to find out about but a fun thing you can do with the entire family.
At this time of the year in New Jersey, many of us are suffering a bad case of cabin fever, after being indoors so much over winter. So in late February and early March, it’s a gift from heaven to find something outdoors you can do with kids that doesn’t involve snow or ice!
A bit about the process of Maple Sugaring
Courtesy of the helpful guides at the Reeves-Reed Arboretum in Summit NJ, our family had lots of fun learning about how maple syrup is made. Basically there are six steps.
Step 1: Identify a Maple Tree
Yep, it’s not surprising to know that maple syrup comes from maple trees. I guess I just never thought about it before. Like many things city folks consume, we have always just bought it at the supermarket without a second thought about how it’s made.
Since this is done in winter time only (for reasons that will become apparent), for the newbie, one leafless tree looks like all the rest. Maple trees are a bit different though. They have branches with what’s called opposite branching: the branches are symmetrically arranged. Other trees do not have this feature, so it is easier than you think to identify a maple.
Step 2: Is the maple tree old enough?
Maple sugaring can only be done effectively on trees that are old enough, which means trees have to be at least 40 years old. You can measure the girth of a maple tree trunk to tell this – a 40 year old tree should be at least 10 inches in diameter.
Healthy trees that are this big or bigger, can then be tapped.
Step 3: Tapping the maple tree
Tapping is done with a little silver thing called a spile, which looks a bit like a wine decanter to me. A hole is put into the tree on its southern side because this is the warmest side, and the most likely place that the sap will flow easiest, at this time of the year.
Surprisingly, they used an old brace and bit drill to make the hole. That’s a manual hand-held tool (needs no electricity) that my father used, way back when… It’s amazing that they can still be so useful today.
Once the hole’s been made, then a hammer is used to gently knock a spile into the hole. A covered bucket is hung around the spile to collect the sap that drips out.
Step 4: Waiting for the sap to come out
Here’s the interesting bit. Sap will only run out when the conditions are just right. You need to have freezing temperatures at night but above freezing temperatures in the daytime. It’s the continuous fluctuation of these two extremes that makes the sap flow. I’ll let you find out yourselves, how and why the tree’s sap behaves this way, when you go to one of these events.
It is safe to say though, that these ideal weather patterns only occur at a specific time of the year. This is why maple sugaring only occurs during late winter.
Step 5: Collect the sap
Once the sap flows, you collect it daily and refrigerate until you are prepared to cook it. Sap is mostly made of water, so you will need about 10 gallons of sap to make approximately one gallon of syrup. Wow! Who knew?
The sap should be filtered with a coffee filter inside a sieve to get any debris or floaties out before you start cooking it.
And believe me, they do get some floaties. Eek… I do prefer my syrup without the ants, twigs and moth thanks.
Step 6: Cook it up
The filtered sap is placed in a large open pan (like a baking tray) and boiled uncovered for several hours. It makes a lot of steam so you can do it outside on an open grill or fire to avoid humidifying your kitchen. You have to pay attention to this boiling pot otherwise you will overcook it and make a sticky black mess.
Apparently, the sap turns into syrup very quickly. It’s considered done when the temperature on the thermometer reads 219 degrees F. A candy thermometer can be used to measure the temperature.
Now you just bottle it in a sterile container, and you’re ready for the pancakes!
Why you should go
Aside from the fact there’s limited things to do outdoors in winter for children that don’t ski or skate, this is a great family experience that you shouldn’t miss, because it:
- Teaches children about the process, and the labor and energy involved in making something from the land that goes to our tables
- Includes activities they can participate in
- Teaches us more about how Native Americans and first settlers interacted
- Shows us what’s in our local environment
- Is suitable for all ages although teenagers may just prefer the syrup tasting part, especially if it comes with free pancakes
- Can be done at plenty of venues
- Costs very little or is often free
Where to Participate in Maple Sugaring?
Many places around New Jersey hold this event but only during late winter. Near Chatham, maple sugaring activities are held at the Great Swamp Outdoors Education Centre on Saturdays and Sundays in January and February.
Other venues in Northern and Central NJ include:
- Reeves-Reed Arboretum in Summit NJ (late Feb/early March)
- Somerset Environmental Education Center Basking Ridge NJ (weekends in Feb/early March)
- Trailside Nature and Science Center, Mountainside, NJ (President’s Day/Feb)
- Nature Center at Washington’s Crossing State Park, Titusville NJ (Late Feb/early March)
- Stony Brook-Millstone Water Shed Association, Pennington NJ (March)
Are there any other places you know of that hold maple sugaring events in New Jersey?