A Sugaring Season-Part 2 Niter here, nor there

Commercial maple syrup manufacturers use very expensive and complex machinery that automates nearly every part of the sugaring process. Nothing is left to chance.

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These commercial evaporators are oil or gas fired and can boil down a thousand gallons of sap in a single hour with costs running to six figures.

The hobbyist sugarer can travel down a number of paths to a finished product. Some eschew anything that speaks to the scientific method and have had great results. My friend Larry…

OK, I have to stop a moment. Every time I write those three words I can’t help but feel like Owen (Danny Devito) writing his story for his creative writing course (his adult education teacher Billy Crystal – Larry) in the movie Throw Momma From the Train. If you have never seen it, it is worth a watch.  It also describes the relationship my brother and I had with our mother, and why that movie is an all-time favorite. Except with my mother. But I think that requires a separate blog post. Probably in Psychology Today.

OK, now that I have had my “squirrel” moment I’ll refocus. My friend Larry has made syrup for a number of years. He’s not as old as dirt, but he was present for its third birthday. Anyhow, after trial and error and error and error, he learned that sap in its final stages likes to foam up. The bubbles take on a different shape, and running a spoon through the mixture can produce a near boil-over. He waits until he has the first boil up, removes the pan from the heat for 15-30 seconds. He then puts the pan back on and waits for it to happen a second time. At that point, he lifts a chicken over his head and loudly proclaims questo e finito in a little ceremony. The chicken really doesn’t do anything for the syrup but it does cut down on the number of neighbors wanting to beg some syrup. It also may explain why Larry, a handsome man, remains single. What it does reflect is how over the years he has developed an almost uncanny ability to produce syrup that tests out at a perfect 66.5 Brix (Brix is a measurement of the sugar content of a solution) and has the flavor to match. In fact, my friend with the fowl hat produced the best batch of syrup I tasted in 2018 cooking with no tools other than a turkey fryer, a propane burner, and his senses.

I have always embraced the scientific method from my early days. For me, to shoot from the hip was unlikely. It’s not that I don’t enjoy spontaneity, I just have to carefully plan for it.  It was very natural for me to get the tools to make sure I made good maple syrup. First, because I wanted people to enjoy the syrup. And second, because I don’t own any chickens. Making syrup doesn’t have to be complicated, but there is a process that needs to be followed. Cheat any part of the process and you may be disappointed in the outcome. Maple sap boils at 7 degrees above the boiling point of water. I have seen hundreds of posts, blogs, websites, books, identify this as the driving number for when sap becomes syrup. Unfortunately, stop boiling at 219 degrees and you will likely have syrup that is too thin, and may spoil quickly in storage.  The thermometer is only as good as the calculations of barometric pressure and altitude at the moment of the boil. That’s why sugar houses rely on additional tools to guide them. Add to the thermometer a hydrometer to measure the density of your syrup and you are closer to success. For all commercial producers, a refractometer is what usually controls the process. When a reading of 66% – 67% sugar solution is achieved, you have maple syrup. It will be stable, and you can expect your syrup to store well. Sounds too complicated? It’s really not, and the best part is the three tools can all be purchased for less than $50. And in less than an hour and a couple YouTube videos, you’ll be a master.

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This inexpensive tool can demonstrate you sap mixture has the proper sugar density to be stable for storage, and have that mouthfeel that maple syrup lovers adore.

So I followed the advice and used the tools at my disposal to make a great batch of maple syrup. I was thrilled at how my first batch tasted. And at first look, it was clear as a bell. I’m thinking, hey, this was pretty easy (if you ignore all the work you did to get to this point). But hey, what’s that in the bottom of the bottle? That my poultry waving friend is sugar sand or niter. Skipping a scientific discussion, niter or sugar sand is a concentration of minerals that precipitate out of the sap solution as it boils. The heaviest sugar sand particles can form a layer on the boiling pans leading to scorching and causing off-flavors. It will also darken syrup.  The general consensus is that there is no harm in sugar sand. But there is also a school of thought that it does impact the long-term storage potential.

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This shows a layer of sugar sand that has settled to the bottom of the jar. Not harmful, it can impact long-term storage, and it does take away from the look of the product you worked so hard to make. Filtering at several points will help ensure your syrup stays crystal clear.

 

So filtering is key to producing perfectly clear syrup. I used layers of sterilized muslin in a chinois (a very fine strainer) and was amazed at how much was collected. I remember reading an abstract from a scientific paper in the early 1900’s where the chemist said he could produce 25 pounds of sugar sand from the sap of 1000 trees. They were looking at ways to harvest malic acid from the sugar sand. Sugar sand is about 1/3rd malic acid. If you remember the Krebs cycle from high school biology malic acid is key in turning ADP in the cell to the energy-rich ATP. I found that on average I collected 6 ounces by weight of sugar sand from every boil. As an aside, malic acid is currently used to treat the symptoms of fibromyalgia, it’s used in the food industry to make things taste tart, and it is also used in the cosmetic industry.

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This step takes the 215-degree sap from the outdoor evaporator where it is first filtered before it is taken to the final stages on a propane burner which provides better heat control. At that point, it is filtered once again before bottling at 185 degrees.
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Here you see the results of the first filtering on the left. That was collected from 75 gallons of sap boiled down to 3 gallons. The image on the right shows what filtered out of the 3 gallons when it was reduced to 1.5 gallons of finished syrup. It does not look like something I’d want to ingest.

The less than exciting reality is that EVERY TIME maple sap/syrup is heated past 190 degrees it will precipitate out additional niter. It is key, however, that you must bottle your syrup at a minimum of 180 degrees to prevent spoilage. Don’t make the mistake my pullet loving pal did. In an attempt to ensure sanitized and sterilized bottles, he placed them in a 300-degree oven until it was time to bottle. You probably see where this is going. The minute that 180 syrup went into the 300-degree jars, his syrup was flash heated to (mc(t2 – t1) can somebody out there do the math, please? Anyway, his syrup was taken to well over 190 degrees producing a nice layer of sugar sand into what is some of the best maple syrup I have ever tasted.

At the end of the day, details are important. Here at Snarky Acres we embrace the science and sweat the small stuff. It matters!

That’s it for the 2018 sugaring season. 2019 will bring some big changes.  Over the summer and fall, I’ll be building a small scale 8×12 post and beam sugarhouse out back. And with many thanks to Kathy, my wife, adding a Mason 2×3 arch and evaporator. I’ll blog that project as I go for anyone thinking of getting inside to boil. After 12 hours in 5-degree temps with 30 mph winds for my second boil of the season, it sounds like a great idea. And maybe, just maybe, get a chicken and learn a little Italian.

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