Saving Vegetable Seeds

farm, homesteading

With fall just starting to show, now is the perfect time to think about putting some seeds away for next year. While growing your own food invokes essential traditions with family and community each year, seed saving is a worthwhile practice that can carry those important traditions across generations. Here are a couple straight-forward veggies that are a good place to start saving.

When choosing a fruit to collect seeds from consider carefully as seed saving is akin to adopting a new family member. Once you’ve chosen the plants you want to work with, look for the general attributes of the fruit and the plant as they would be the parent of the future generations in your garden. Choose for characteristics you like, perhaps the plant’s performance, fruit size, disease resistance, etc.

Tomatoes

Some genetic crossing with other closeby tomato varieties are possible, so maybe consider spacing different varieties apart in your garden. Collect ripe fruits. Crush them in a container and stir twice daily. There is a pulp that surrounds the seeds that will be reduced by a light fermentation. The seeds should eventually sink to the bottom after about 2-4 days. Caution that over-fermentation can reduce germination.

When the seeds are ready add water, stir, and pour off the water with the tomato solids. Keep repeating until the seeds are left with some pretty clean water. Strain the seeds and lay out on a cloth to dry.

Peppers

Use ripe fruit. Remove the seeds from the flesh. No washing necessary. Allow to air dry. Varieties should be grown with some separation if genetic purity is desired, around 50′.

Eggplant

Use mature fruit whose flesh leaves an indent when pressed. Remove seeds by cutting and crushing the fruits. A knife will likely slice through some seeds so maybe just cut in half then tear the rest with your hands. Place in a bowl and add water and continue to crush, squeeze, or rub free the seeds. Wash out in a way similar to tomatoes but there’s no fermentation required. Lay out to dry. Varieties should be separated by around 50′ if you want genetic purity.

Beans, Grains, & Potatoes

Plants like beans, potatoes, and grains are quite simple as the harvest is the seed itself. Just let the plant reach full maturity, harvest, and store away as you would as if it were food. Beans and grains tend to be left on the plant until it fully dies back, they are further dried indoors for a few weeks just to be sure, then packed away. Potatoes are stored in the root cellar or a cool basement.

Note on Drying Seeds

Let the seeds dry on their own if your ambient temperatures allow them to do so without molding. Try not to use anything to speed up drying however a light fan for air-flow can be okay.

*Most of these posts are resources for Ferment Pittsburgh’s monthly newsletter that features seasonal ideas, techniques, and musings. Consider jumping aboard?

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Homemade Blueberry Vinegar

fermentation, homesteading

Blueberry vinegar first began as a failed attempt at blueberry wine, but is now an annual tradition and the primary vinegar we use for everything. Making vinegar is a perfect use for old, blemished, and forgotten fruit.

This recipe is for a sweet blueberry vinegar that is excellent as a finishing vinegar or to dress up salads. No fancy task here, though a hydrometer is laxidazically used to measure the sugar content along the way. It’s an essential tool for alcohol ferments that costs ~$20, though is not required for here.

For every gallon of fresh blueberries you’ll need:

  • 1# Sugar
  • 7/8 gallon of water (or just a tad less than a full gallon)

To start, load up your bloobs into your fermentation vessel and give ’em a preliminary mash.

Add water and sugar and give a good stir to dissolve. You could certainly dissolve the sugar before adding but the lazy method is always refreshing. The sugar will dissolve eventually. Cover your container with a breathable cover, like a t-shirt affixed with a rubber band to keep insects out.

After about 48 hours I’ll measure the sugar with a hydrometer. I like to shoot for 22-24 Brix, which is the equivalent of wine’s starting brix. Measuring this isn’t necessary, as the recipe water and sugar amounts will get you close enough.

Soon enough your blueberries will start to ferment from wild yeast. It’s a helpful thing to come by and stir the top once or twice a day, or as you remember. The fermentation will push the blueberry solids to the top so we need to break up that cap every so often. Don’t worry about using a clean tool to do it, we’re making vinegar after all.

A hydrometer can help chart the processes of your fermentation, though the old way is just observing the bubbling activity and intuition. If the mixture can ferment down to around 10 or below Brix then we will be looking at a 5-6% acidity vinegar, which is our goal. Without a hydrometer you can let it go until the bubbling has calmed down to just occasional pricks. There’s no wrong way here. We like a sweet blueberry vin so like to catch it before the fermentation has completed. However you could very well just let it ferment to dry all the same. Regardless, when the time is right, add a little acidic acid inoculation via a splash of live vinegar, over-the-hill kombucha, vinegar mother, or a backslop of last year’s bloob vin. You can also just let the mixture sit untouched with its breathable lid until it eventually sours. Whichever way, it’s time to just let it sit.

Taste it ocassionally until that one magical day when your bloobs taste unmistakably like vinegar. Now is a good time to press which can be done by emptying the contents through a pillow case, then twisting and squeezing it until enough of the juice has run out.

After a couple days rack off the solids accumulated at the bottom by carefully pouring the liquid out until it reaches the sludge. Discard the sludge and store your delicious vin away in a lidded containers or a carboy.

*Most of these posts are resources for Ferment Pittsburgh’s monthly newsletter that features seasonal ideas, techniques, and musings. Consider jumping aboard?

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Lacto-Fermented Pickles of Any Kind

fermentation, homesteading, Uncategorized, Vegetable Fermentation

The chase is in full swing. Fleeting moments that contain green beans, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, and all the rest are here to either catch or miss. Each jar and crock filled is a thriving moment of anticipation for that winter day when you unlock the memories of summer and you proudly present them to your fellow diners- these are my pickles! In addition to the fantastic name, dilly beans were likely my very first homemade pickle. However, like all recipes, are open to your play and creativity.

For the modest backyard garden that gathers maybe a handful of something every other day or so, setting up a continuous pickling regiment is great. Line up your either mason jars, old peanut butter jars, etc and make them as you go- one little jar at time perhaps. Either way the laid-back nature of lacto-fermented pickles assures you can have the time to make delicious pickles this summer.


Pack as much fresh or dried herb as you can while leaving some room still for the veg. Dill blossoms, green coriander, fresh garlic or scapes, fennel blossom, hot peppers etc. It’s nice to shuve the whole thing, stalks and all, when using fresh herbs.

With whatever remaining leftover room squish in as many cucumbers, beans or whatever veg or veg combo into your jar as you can manage.

I like to eyeball my salt (and maybe return later to taste and adjust) but for the rest a nice middle ground place is 2-3 TBS of salt per a quart. That will hit about the 3.6- 5.2% salinity which is delicious.

Add water to cover everything as best as possible and fasten the lid securely.

Leave it out on counter for 3 days, or until you notice some vigorous bubbling activity. The tell-tale sign will be a bulge in the lid. When that occurs, move to the back of the fridge until you forget and remember again that it’s there some time later in the winter. This quick counter to fridge process ensures the crispest pickle for anyone pickling in some hot weather. The fermentation will crawl along slower but to me sure beats having mush.

Forget about the pickles in the back of fridge for at least a month or two but even better the longer you wait. Also, consider not removing the lid once you get a bulge in it. The reason is, that accumulated Co2 is pushing any oxygen up and away from any plant parts not submerged by the brine thus keeping mold away as if it were submerged. There is also an added bonus of getting some effervescent pickles when you open them!

*Most of these posts are resources for Ferment Pittsburgh’s monthly newsletter that features seasonal ideas, techniques, and musings. Consider jumping aboard?

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Pickled & Marinated Preserved Summer Veg

homesteading, Uncategorized

This is quickly becoming a favorite process of ours for preserving summer veg. It’s especially exciting for those who spend their winters pizza-ing through their larder. It works with almost any firm veg and involves a flash boil in pickling brine to pick up on a wonderful pickled bite, then submerging in oil to marinate and preserve until you’re ready to use it. This veg is absolutely delicious and are a wonder to dig out of a jar, already coated in fat to enhance any future meals.


Make a simple pickle brine of 1:1 ratio water to vinegar, and add a teaspoon of salt for every 4 cups of liquid. (The brine amounts depend on how much veg your preserving.) Bring it to a boil.

After cutting your veg to the shape and size of your desires, plop them into the boiling brine for roughly 2-5 minutes. However this time is more dependant on the vegetable you’re using. The goal is to soften it to al dente- softened but still retaining some bite. No worries if it’s not perfect.

In the meantime drop any decorative seasonings into a jar- a clove of garlic, herbs like thyme, oregano, perhaps a sliver of hot pepper.

When the veg is ready, strain it and immediately pack it into the prepared jar. Also immediately, cover it completely to the top with oil, pop on the lid and let it be.

This marinated pickle lasts a couple months in the pantry but can also last quite a lot longer in the fridge.

*Most of these posts are resources for Ferment Pittsburgh’s monthly newsletter that features seasonal ideas, techniques, and musings. Consider jumping aboard?

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Cleaning Up Fermentation Disasters

fermentation, homesteading

It’s one of fermentation’s most thrilling moments: perhaps it was a bit over-zealousness, maybe insects snuck in an threw a party, or maybe warm weather grabbed hold and ran away with it. Regardless, why freak out? You simply made something else, a mold farm? And it’s time to inoculate the world with your fuzzy rainbow.

Why not get comfortable with these usually unwanted intrusions? It could mean your project is no more, but take comfort in the fact that the processes of nature are continuing to move forward in ways that transform ugk into new life. Come on, I say, it really is beautiful. Show off your art piece to your friends. Then, give this a whirl…

Throw a lid over the top to keep any flies or spores from dancing around as your bee-line it for outside. Do this on a cool or rainy day, it’ll keep the stink down.

Take it to either your compost pile, garden bed, or beneath a tree and flip it upside down. Don’t feel shy about scurrying away quickly. In fact run. Why? Because it’s fun, and if your neighbors don’t think you’re crazy yet then you’re doing something wrong. Maybe this is an overwhelming situation, maybe emotional, but maybe it’s also no big whoop either.

In another day or couple of days kick over the vessel so it’s laying on its side. We’re just letting nature do the cleaning by allowing her to finish the processes she started in your house. Consider it a compromise. The insects will move on, the mold and slime will dry out or wash away. In enough time the life cycles will run through and the vessel will be much easier and friendlier to clean.

There’s an added benefit to having a calculated place to dispose of your secrets and mistakes. What you’re dumping out, through the hard collaborative work of pests, microbes, and you, is rich in nutrients and microbial life to be taken in by the soil, aka, your fermentation disaster is increasing soil fertility.

There’s a neat website here that describes the various nutrients each plant has, and those nutrients get unlocked and added to your soil through the fermentation process.

As far as the scrubbing goes having something that sprays with some good pressure is amazing. It’s especially helpful in getting off any larval carcasses who tend to affix themselves to the sides (yum). But what a great job you’ve done incubating the processors of nature.

For a really good clean I like to soak in a food safe lye solution, just a pinch or two of pure granules, but only if you’re dealing with a non-corrosive container.

Then scrub to your heart’s content until your next fermentation adventure. Consider lessons learned. Congratulate yourself on inoculating your lastest insect/ mold farm into the world for the health of the whole ecosystem.

Couple Ways to Preserve Stinging Nettles

fermentation, homesteading

Picking wild nettles is one of the essential traditions of spring. I’m certain the world will cease to turn the first year that nettle soup doesn’t make its way to the table. (As should be the case.) For nettles all year long here are a couple things to do.

Blanch & Freeze

Prepare a large pot with boiling water and enough salt that it tastes good to you. Leave enough extra room for when you plunge the nettle in. When you achieve a rolling boil add modest handfuls of nettle, pushing them down to submerge for about 2-4 minutes. Remove, strain, and place in iced water, or the coldest water you have and repeat as necessary until all of your nettle is blanched.

When all the nettle is done and cooled, strain them from the cold water bath and squeeze excess water out. I like to roughly chop it at this point. Next, divide the nettle into portions, put them into freezer bags, or other containers, and place in the freezer. These are great for adding straight away into dishes like stews or stuffing into ravioli all winter long.

Lacto-Ferment

A quick and natural ways to preserve nettle while influencing its unique nutritive qualities is a quick lacto-ferment. Just pack nettles into a jar with a sprinkle of salt (3% salt by volume brine is the general comfy amount) and top with water. Screw the lid lightly shut and let it bubble up at room temperature for a couple days. Thin leaves like these do have a tendency to get mushy and fall apart if left to ferment long enough so I prefer to move my fermented nettle to the fridge a couple days into the jar getting active.

Add to Sauerkraut

If you happen to have some sauerkraut lying around or are about to make a batch, sauerkraut works as a great “bed” for leaves like nettle to help resist them turning to mush. Mix fresh leaves in with your cabbage or kraut to make a fun seasonal variation.

Dry

I think drying is the best use for the big, late spring nettles. The small, delicate ones deserve to be eaten right away. The dried nettle are great as a seasoning or nourishing tea at any time. I like to take advantage of the new warm sunny rays and simply lay the nettle out in a single layer on newspaper, flipping and turning as I remember. The gently dried nettle can then be stored in jars.

Growing Wheat in Your Garden

bread, farm, Homegrown Grains, homesteading

It’s always exciting to add a new personality to your garden and many of us love to bake and eat bread. Growing wheat is one of those things that could seem daunting from afar, but the truth is it’s almost as easy as growing grass. Regardless of if you lack enough extra space, the value of the experience unravels the mystery of how bread and other flour products come to be. It’s an exciting crop with loads to teach, so why not give it a shot?

Not too much space is necessary to get started. Similar to if you have a modest garden plot and only get some of this and that, you’ll probably need something like 20’x 20′ to grow enough for a loaf of bread. But much of the reward is gained through shining a hands-on light onto how grains live and grow, which I believe is worth experiencing no matter the space restrictions. And every year you grow it you’re adapting and building up your seedbank to boot.

Growing wheat is the simpler part however its processing is a bit more involved. There’s a bit of a rhythm and experience that goes into it transitioning from plant to muffin, or cookie, or bread which we’ll get into when the time comes but it’s a good argument for starting your first plot small.

Selecting seed

There are many different types of seed to choose from. Consider your ultimate purpose when choosing. And do make sure get your seeds from a good source so they may be free of annoying disease.

Hard Red Winter – High-protein used from bread and other baked goods, commonly used for all-purpose flour.

Hard Red Spring – Highest protein and thus best grain for bread and other leavened products.

Soft Red – Low-protein and often used for pastry flour to make cakes, pies, and other baked goods.

Soft White – Very low-protein used for pastry flours and unleavened baked goods.

Do some research on the seed before you buy it. Many winter varieties require a vernalization period, meaning they need to experience temperatures below ~40 degrees for up to 45 or so days in order to produce a seedhead that same year. Winter varieties tend to be planted in the fall to grow up a bit before winter halts them into dormancy until spring. Some winter varieties can be facultative, meaning they can be planted in either the fall or spring.

Generally speaking fall grains produce more tillers (seed-bearing stalks) and thus have a higher yield, while spring grain is higher in protein and thus higher in gluten and better bread bakeability.

When to plant

Winter wheat is planted in the northeast sometime between late September and early October. The goal is to give the grain enough time to sprout up and establish itself before winter settles in, however not so much time that it begins it’s upward growth stages. Then it will hang out in the field ready to take off at the first sign of warm weather.

Spring wheat can be planted in early spring from late March to early April. In the picture below you’ll see them side-by-side. A benefit to planting in the fall is the jump the wheat gets on out-competing the weeds.

Side by side with Spring planted wheat on the left, and fall planted wheat on the right.

Wheat is a heavy feeder so you’ll want adequate fertility in your soil. Nitrogen is directly related to the protein in the kernel so if you’re trying to make a quality bread you’ll want to feed it well. We always grow a field of beans the season before wheat for their nitrogen fixing characteristics. A spring sown dry bean goes through its growth cycle just in time for winter wheat to be planted. We also broadcast red clover in late winter. The goal is for after we cut down the wheat we’ll be left with a field of nitrogen-fixing clover.

We’ve learned that some ancient grains like einkorn and emmer thrive on lower fertility and in fact too high could cause them to grow up so big they just fall over, which is referred to as lodging.

Seeding

Seed spacing really depends on your specific seed. We’ve grown a winter emmer that reaches 6′ tall and amasses a wide girth and can handle generous spacing of 10″ or so and still form a tight canopy. Conversely, our red fife wheat stays super compact. Finding a sweet spot that doesn’t overcrowd your grain but encourages a full cover when mature helps keep the competing weeds at bay and your yield at its best. Perhaps a good place to start is 6″ spacing in rows with 8″ between rows, or enough space to work your hoe between rows.

Broadcasting is fun to do but doesn’t provide you with an opportunity to control weeds. Perhaps in that case broadcasting is better suited for fall planting.

Cultivation

Stay on top of those weeds as best you can. It’ll be competitive for spring grains which can easily get gobbled up by all the other eager seeds. Hoe persistently before the grain grows out and you’re no longer able to pass through the rows. Winter grain will help keeps weeds away due to its early jump in the spring. However a broadcasting of red clover in late winter may halt any future cultivation plans. Either way when it comes to harvest time it’s nice to cut down handfuls of wheat rather than handfuls of, say, thistle.

Some varieties such as einkorn are allelopathic, which means they produce chemicals that repress other plants trying to grow around them.

Growth stages

After the grain sprouts it will go into tillering phase. This is when the plant starts producing young future seed-bearing stalks and look just like grass. It’s a great time to show off your super spotty “lawn” to your friends for a good laugh. Yet each of these tillers will potentially grow up to produce a seedhead.

Soon the energy is focused upward as the stalks start climbing led by the flagleaf. When it reaches a sort of terminus, from beneath the lead leaf a bulge begins in the stalk. A little seedhead head then pokes out and gets lifted higher yet into the sky.

Then emerges what looks like little white dust dangling from the seedhead which is the plant’s flowering. Wheat is pollinated romantically enough by the summer breezes. When the flowers fall away, now begins the ripening of the grain.

At this point the grain chamber seems empty but with a little time it fills in and starts taking shape. The seed starts with what’s called the milky stage. This is when if you squeeze the seed it will ooze a milky substance. Next it will firm up into the soft dough stage. It’s basically as it sounds, when the kernel is chewed between the teeth it will feel like just that- a soft dough. Then with continued ripening the kernel hardens into a hard dough stage. The grain is rapidly loosing moisture and preparing for its future germination as a seed.

flowering wheat

When to harvest

Once the transition node between the seedhead and the stalk has browned the seed is no longer receiving nutrients from the plant. Additionally, the longer the seed remains on the plant the higher the percentage of germ will be in each kernel. The germ assists in the germination of the seed into a new plant. However if you want to for instance to make bread then you’ll want to maximize the starch and minimize the germ. In that case you will harvest about two weeks early, when the kernel is in soft dough. If you’re harvesting for seed, simply allow the plant to fully ripen, just making sure to get it before the birds do.

Harvest

Harvest by either clipping the grain heads off or cutting the somewhere along the stalk with a sickle or machete. You’ll want to store them somewhere they can finish drying- so a well-ventilated space safe from the weather, but also somewhere away from where birds, rodents, and other rascals might be able to reach them. Tying them off into sheaves is beautiful and helpful for transporting them if you grew enough, though not really necessary.

Once your grain is dried enough that it doesn’t dent beneath your thumbnail it is storable and ready for the threshing floor.

What follows is the threshing, winnowing and storing, plus milling, etc. We’ll have resources for those topics along shortly. Stay tuned and give wheat a try!

Homemade Spring Herb Chevre

dairy, fermentation, homesteading

In the spirit of welcoming spring, chevre is a perfect companion. It’s creamy, yet sour notes describe the thawing and waking of the world around us. It’s also a cheese I refer to as a lazy cheese. It’s the perfect gateway for anyone wanting to get into cheesemaking, with several steps that run the pattern of- “do one thing, then forget about it for a day or so.” To make it even more special it begs to compliment the first herbs that rise from the ground, or even if you’re in need of using them up, perhaps the last of last year’s dried herbs. It can be made from any mammal’s milk really, so why not pick some herbs on your walk to the milk store?

Start with good milk. It’s best to use the most minimally processed milk you can get your hands on, but definitely non-homogenized milk. Often this is called cream-top. The process of homogenization destroys the milk’s ability to turn into the cheese we want.

Next you’ll need rennet. Rennet is the coagulator that will give us our curd. Traditionally it originates from enzymes in the stomach of a calf, however there are now all sorts of options from plant-based rennet to weird laboratory synthetic ones. Check out Cultures for Health for a full line up that’s great for home use.

Lastly you’ll need some kind of inoculant if you’re not using raw milk, which provides it’s own cultures. Dairy kefir grains work great.

Process

If using a half gallon of milk, pour off a cup with your kefir grain to culture for 1-2 days at room temperature. A jar with a loose fitting lid works great. No need to be super precise if you don’t want to.

Once your kefir has generally ripened, take the reminder of your milk to the stove and heat to a pleasantly warm 90 degrees. Turn off heat and add your kefir (straining out the grain for future use). Stir and incubate the milk for at least an hour.

Next measure out your rennet according to the manufacturer’s instructions of the particular kind you have. We are using just 1/4th of a dose. I dilute mine in a small splash of water before pouring it in the milk. Stir the milk gently for 20 seconds making sure to touch every part- top, bottom, and every side. Put a lid on and let it rest.

In fact let it rest for 24 hours. I’m convinced this cheese was invented by someone who just flat forgot about it. Regardless, the curd will set within a half hour, and will then slowly ferment in the whey building up lactic acid bacteria. The results of this 24 hours time vary upon environment. Best to taste it if you’re particular. The warmer the room temperature/ the longer it goes, the more sour tasting it will become.

After 24 hours, or so, set up a cheesecloth straining system. Sometimes when I can’t find a cheesecloth I opt for a white teeshirt. Tie it up around a spoon and suspend it over a pot or bowl to drain out. Straining should take another 12-24 hours, or you can check periodically for your desired consistency.

Next open up your beautifully strained curd and place in a bowl for mashing and mixing. Add salt to taste, perhaps a teaspoon at a time until it is just right for you. Then the fun part- add whatever spring herbs you have around whether they be ramps, nettles, redbud flowers, dandelions, etc. Whatever flavors excite your imagination.

I think it’s essential to celebrate the new flavors that come up with every new stroke of the season’s wandering melody. Not everyone can stroll over to a ramp patch any time so consider dehydrating some to call upon for stoking some excitement for the flavors close at hand. Ramps and fresh chevre taste like spring to me.

Enjoy.

How to Make Backyard Maple Syrup

homesteading

Whether doing 1 tree or a full-on sugar bush operation, tapping for maple sap is a really fun activity for the tail end of winter. It’s a big recommendation, gets you moving outside again. It also really doesn’t cost anything, so with some maple trees to use and some motivation the adventure awaits you.

Identifying maple trees

We gotta find or identify a maple tree first. It can be on your property or perhaps you ask for permission from a neighbor. The easiest way to identify a maple is by looking for the easily recognizable maple leaf, but you know that. For the beginner marking maple trees while they have leaves could be your best help. Alas, tapping is a winter activity so we won’t think of it until the leaves have long fallen. Occasionally some dried leaves might be caught up in the branches but start by look at the bark. The bark varies from one variety to the next but look out for long strips that go up and down the trunk with narrow grooves between them. Some are smoother than others, and vary from grey to brown. Step 1.

If you’re able to peek at the branches and catch the dormant buds at their ends look for a center bud at the very end with two smaller ones on either side as it’s shoulders. This is a convincing characteristic.

If you somehow catch sight of them, the seed pods of most maple are those helicopter wings we played with as kids that come in pairs and spin in the wind.

There are a lot of different types of maple, and while perhaps Sugar Maple is the popular favorite, you’ll still get a deliciously sweet syrup from whatever you try. Don’t think you only need sugar to get your sugar. Red, Box Elder, etc are all very good and worthwhile.

Sap Running & Proper Conditions

The roots drink up an impressive amount of water everyday in the warmer months that flows up and through the tree. This helps generate growth. When leaves are on the trees the water is pulled all the way up the tree, into the leaves, and respired out of the little stomata on the leaves, and into the air in a process that assists with photosynthesis.

When cold weather moves in and those “breathing” leaves fall, the tree goes into a shut down mode where the stream of water that previously ran through its body slows. Water running in the tree at this point can put the tree at risk of damage due to the water expanding when it freezes and bursting the sapwood vessels and fibers. In addition to the tree’s safety measure of winter dehydration, it also will produce more sugar which in turn dilutes the water and lowers the freezing temperatures.

Mid-to-late winter, depending on where you live, before the tree’s bud-break is the time to be ready for the maple season. After a couple times when the temperature gets above freezing during the day, the sugar-rich sap begins to flow upward to aid the development of the coming arrival of its buds and shoots. Keeping an eye on the weather we are looking for a the moment the weather begins to have above freezing temperatures during the day and below freezing temperatures at night. This is our “sweet” spot when the temperature fluctuations create optimal pressure for sap to seep out of any bruises on the still leafless tree.

It’s impossible to predict the season as some years the conditions can persist for weeks while other years may only last a few days. Keep a feeler to the sky.

Equipment

This is a no-frills way of tapping. Like with anything else you can spend as much money as makes you feel good on anything. After doing this for quite a while I don’t know why it would be worth spending money on equipment unless you were doing it commercially. I have never spent any money on maple sugaring equipment.

Spiles – There are all kinds of spiles for sale on the market however I’ve never used any of them. All you need is to know where a sumac or elder is and it takes all of 15 minutes to make a dozen yourself. I’ve detailed instructions on how to make spiles here. Otherwise if you’re into buying things get the metal ones over plastic. While I haven’t used them, I still can’t imagine the plastic ones lasting very long since we are pounding them in and leaving them out in the weather year after year.

Collection Buckets – These are the buckets you’ll be collecting sap off the tree in. The size can vary but will be based on how fast the sap is running and how often you empty the bucket. Go to a pizza shop and ask for their empty commercial sized tomato sauce cans. They are about a nice size, durable, and food safe. However if you want to go big, maybe get a 5 gallon bucket. It is possible to get quite a bit in a day from a single tree. In that case you may need to run to Lowes or Home Depot where they sell those food grade buckets for around $5. Those 5 gallon buckets I prefer to let collect on the ground due to its weight. For smaller containers though you can pierce a hole on opposite sides and run a string through it to saddle over your spile.

Sap storage – You’ll need a larger container to empty the buckets from each tree into. This is the holding container for until you’re ready to boil. A 55 gallon drum is nice. Grey Brute garbage containers as food safe. Those large Gatorade coolers work for the smaller scale operation too. It’s not far-fetched to expect to be overwhelmed with sap as the year goes on. This container is a good one to be generously on-top of.

Other equipment – a drill, hand or electric, with various sized bits for drilling into trees. Maybe a mallet for driving in spiles. But the rock laying next to the tree works just as well.

How to tap

Select your trees and pick what number you like to do. Five trees is a great starting place. I don’t do more than 12 and get enough sap/ syrup for my needs. Don’t tap anything under 8″ in diameter. If you have some hunkers, you can measure the diameter and divide by 8 to figure out how many taps can be used on that tree. Keep multiples spaced out.

Determine whether you’re hanging your collection bucket from the tap or placing it on the ground. You’ll want to determine a spot that is accessible for your container. Consider the tap will stick out maybe 2-3 inches and assess the angle of the trunk and the ground below it. Having the tap on the sun-facing side could help keep your tap from freezing over on occasion. If the tap is too far away from the bucket a windy day can sweep your drops away.

Drill into the tree according to the size recommended on your purchased taps or if using sumac use a bit approximately the size of the small end of your spile’s tapper. Drill in around 1-2″. It doesn’t have to be deep, just enough to access the sapwood and give room for the tap to hold. Most recommend drilling at a slight angle, I’ve always done mine straight. If it’s the right tree, and the season is right, you should see liquid accumulating in the hole within seconds.

Now lightly pound in your spile until its snug. You want the spile to be firm enough around the hole so the sap goes through the center channel and not seep out the sides, which is why the spile is tapered. If you pound too hard with homemade spiles the end may cave in and restrict sap flow.

Hang or arrange your collection bucket and check back within a few minutes to see if the tap started dripping. If it hasn’t after 15 minutes or so, take your spile out and make adjustments. You may need to drill deeper, or clear a blockage in your spile. Carrying a pocket knife is helpful with modifying homemade spiles on the go.

Collecting sap

Check the sap at least once a day if not twice a day. There are a lot of factors at play but you’ll get a feel for the timing of your trees soon enough. You want to try to avoid letting the buckets overflow. When you make your rounds you’re emptying the buckets into your larger collection vessel. It’s refreshing work lugging buckets back and forth, especially if there hadn’t been much outdoor work to do all winter. Your collection vessel can live outside at your tapping location, ideally in the shade. It will be naturally refrigerated outdoors until you are able to boil.

It’s possible ants will discover your buckets. This is okay, it’s nature. Strain them out as you empty your buckets. I once placed a bucket with a little sap on the ground in the middle of some anty trees and called out to the ants to try this bucket, it tastes better. Whether that worked or not is between me and the ants…

Some higher tech set up will have lids on the collection buckets and tubes running straight from the tree to the bucket. It definitely keeps out the bugs and any rain or snow. I’ve never used either of those as I’d rather have a few sticks and ants to strain out then have my sap run around through all that plastic or have my operation reliant on a store. It’s up to your preference.

Boiling and storing syrup

It’s best not to wait too long to boil. A week is fine, two weeks is a stretch. The sap contains a lot of pectin and will gelatinize, making for an awkward consistency and boil.

The easiest way to boil is just over a burner. Syrup is typically a 40:1 ratio. If you have 40 gallons of sap you’re boiling and you do it indoors that means that you’ll be evaporating a lot of water into your house. That’s going to be rough on the house. An outdoor burner like a turkey fryer is helpful. Or maybe it’s a nice day and your kitchen is near the backdoor which you leave open so waft out the humidity.

A third option is the original and that’s boiling over a fire. This takes a lot of dedication as it can take up a whole day to boil down a mere gallon. Meanwhile you’re tending the fire and a fire going that long is a heck of a lot of fuel. The benefit is the nice smokey flavor and the experience. Find a container with the most surface area and make the fire as wide as its base. I’ve known someone who welded shut a bathtub and boiled in that. Just be sure to finish the sap inside over your stove to keep from burning all that work away.

The boiling is pretty straight forward for the bulk of it however once it starts getting close you’ll need to keep a closer eye on it. No use going through all that trouble just to burn your syrup! Boiling down to your preferred consistency and jar it up. To keep your maple syrup from molding you need a sugar density of over 66 Brix. You could also can it hot and it’ll last a while until it gets opened.

Ways to use sap

If I’m being completely honest I’d say that making maple syrup is not worth the effort. I’m not saying it’s not worth it, just that the effort doesn’t align with the final yield for the home-scale operation. That doesn’t mean it’s not a heck of a lot of fun and I wouldn’t miss a season. However perhaps boiling the sap isn’t always the best option. I usually do one boil a year and use the rest of the season’s sap for other things. Sap is the more efficient product afterall. Here are a few thoughts on using sap:

  1. Freeze it for a summer treat.
  2. Use it for your morning coffee.
  3. Cook vegetables by boiling in sap.
  4. Maple Mead. Don’t boil it down fully, just most of the way or so and proceed to ferment it into alcohol.