Nature Sweet Nature

9 walnut trees.  9 walnut trees that make a huge mess every fall of little grenades that fall from the sky and sometimes knock you on the head while you’re walking around.  Husking black walnuts and drying them out is a ton of work that we have not attempted yet.  But we started looking at other ways that our shady friends in the yard could teach us something.  They feed the squirrels.  They draw woodpeckers.  They hold our hammock in the shade.  But they also produce sap!  And they are one of the few kinds of trees that make delicious syrup.  Not as popular as the sugar maple, black walnut trees produce a super sweet sap that can be boiled down to a delicious syrup.  We started reading and watching youtube vidoes, and then we were off to the races for just $20 in supplies on amazon.

The kids were excited to try something new, possibly not as excited as I was…And we had to wait for the right weather.  All of my reading told me to watch for nights below freezing and days above 40.  For us in Michigan this year, that meant Valentine’s Day.  There was a good run of cold nights and warm days after that.  The kids wanted to make their own video about tapping the trees, so we did 🙂  You can watch it here.

The tapping process was pretty simple.  We ordered a set of spiles (tree taps) and tubing from amazon for 10 taps.  You can see the supplies we bought here.  The price fluctuates, but I am willing to bet it’s cheaper in the off season, than on.  We drilled holes in the tops of milk jugs and juice containers to fit the other end of the tubing like this stock photo.

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We had the kids measure the tree and then learned about Pi to figure out the diameter.  I knew those geometry skills would come into play some day.  Thank you Mr. Pollock, Armada High School.  We used a dressmakers tape to measure around the tree for the circumference and divided by Pi for the diameter.  A tree should have at least a 12 inch diameter to be tapped.  A tree greater than 24 inches can handle two taps.

Drill a small hole (for our spile it was a 5/16 drill bit) at a slightly upward angle into the tree as high as your tube reaches and 1 1/2inches in. You should drill on the south side of the tree and if you can, under a large healthy limb or off shoot.  If you tap one tree twice, make sure the taps are at least 12 inches apart.  Gently tap in the spile just until the sound from the hammer changes to a dull clank instead of the higher pitched ting.  Super clinical terms here, right?  You don’t want to drive too hard or too far because you risk splitting the wood in the tree.  It just needs to be snug in the hole, not flush to the tree.  And that’s it!  Then you wait.

Our first trip out was still kind of cold so we only put three taps out in two different trees.  A few days later we added 4 more taps, for a total of 7 taps in 5 different trees.

I read somewhere you should use or freeze sap within 7 days.  So we took that to heart and we collected everything we could on day 7 (for the first three taps) and boiled!  We had somewhere between 4 and 5 gallons.  First we tried the fresh sap from the tree after a quick filter.  Some people swear by the homeopathic properties of tree sap.  We didn’t explore that too much but we wanted to see what it tasted like.  It was sweet like the left over melted ice in the bottom of your fountain coke.  It wasn’t wonderful…but it wasn’t bad.  Maybe we will look into the benefits more in the future.

We double filtered the sap through the filter that came in our kit and a coffee filter in a strainer into a large 22QT stainless steel stock pot.  I think it’s important that I tell you that real syrup makers boil outside or in a special sugar shack because the steam it creates is ridiculous.  They also steam in long pans with more surface area, but we don’t have that kind of set up and this is recreational and educational for us so we just went with what we had.  We boiled on our stove top with the window open, the stove hood on, and a fan blowing steam toward the window.

We started boiling around 10am over a medium high heat.  We added a candy thermometer to watch the temperature.  One of the joys of living in a house built in the 1890’s is super awesome wiring and about 2 hours into our boil we lost the oven hood.  The entire wall fuse blew and I couldn’t get it back on.  It actually didn’t come back on for almost two days…  So the condensation really started to build up once we didn’t have that fan sucking it outside.  Do not boil in your kitchen if you have wallpaper.  You’ve been warned.

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This spread halfway across the kitchen.  We opened more windows and added another sideways fan and it helped tremendously.  There was no sticky residue left behind when we were done that so many people had warned about online.  It was just moisture.

But we boiled on!

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The end temperature goal is 219 degrees.  We didn’t stand here and watch this all day.   I checked on it often, but we went about our day and just didn’t LEAVE the house.  With more surface area, the boil would have gone faster, but we weren’t in a rush.

After 4 hours, around 2:00 it really started to change the most.

I watched it diligently from 2:00 until we pulled it around 2:20.  I covered my hand and got that candy thermometer way down in there since it wouldn’t reach anymore and watched the temperature carefully.  When it hit 219, we pulled it from the heat and ran it through a fresh strainer/coffee filter into a glass bowl.  It was super thick now and ran much slower.  We wanted to bottle while it was still hot so we shook it a bit to get it through as fast as we can.  Apparently the 212 or so is the magic number for killing bacteria in the bottles too.  So that’s why we rushed it.  We popped it into small bottles and capped them and even added shrink wrap collars with my hair dryer.  The kids wanted labels so we made them, even though we are not selling them, they will make cute gifts if we don’t use them all.

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Our 4-5 gallons of week 1 sap boiled down to not quite 10 beautiful ounces of rich, dark, sweet syrup.  Walnut is not as thick as maple, but it’s dare I say sweeter and a little buttery. It takes a lot of sap to make a little syrup, but really it was more about patience than actual work and seeing the end product made us so proud.

Week 2 taps are running and we already have a few gallons! We can’t wait to boil some more.

Go tap a tree!  Learn something new and enjoy nature together and the magic it creates.

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