Thursday, April 2, 2009

Little Fire on the Prairie

One of the things that seems to happen on a lot of farms every early spring is the "burn-off" of the old grasses and such. Such fires happened naturally every few years or so on the original prairie, and the grasses and vegetation all seem to have adapted to it to the point of practically depending on it to grow. Many prairie projects use "prairie burns" to get rid of the dead grasses and weeds to create an environment where native plants can be re-established.

On our 5-acre plot, we had a chunk of land that we hadn't actually burned, or mowed, or done anything with really for two years. With the promise/possibility of getting some livestock this year, one of the things we wanted to do was to burn out the old stuff so that we have a nice stand of "fresh" pasture for either rotational grazing or for cutting hay. That old stuff is really tough to get a scythe through nicely, for instance - plus the dead grass really chokes the pasture.

We ended up dividing our work into some smaller parcels - with just Rob and me out there managing the fire, we didn't want it to get out of control for what are likely obvious reasons.

Here's an idea of what we were starting with, facing North.

and another shot facing Southeast.

Just to be as safe as possible, particularly since again, it was only Rob and me out there with our hoses and shovels, Rob mowed a strip around our intended burn area. We then wet down that mowed area pretty well before we started the fire. As it turns out, this provided a very effective firebreak.

You always have to take the winds into account - you don't want the wind too high or sweeping the fire along in front of you. The winds were coming out of the South that day at some 5 - 10 mph or so, and therefore we started in the north-eastern corner of our burn plot. Here's the start of the burn.

It only took a few minutes for it to really get going.

It's pretty neat to watch it move across the field.

Here's Rob with his shovel, making sure that the fire doesn't get near the corn crib.

Jonathan came out to help an eye on it with Rob - the firebreaks really did a good job, though.

In fact, here he is in front of one of those firebreaks, contemplating the fire.

Overall, it took about an hour or so to burn off the area we were after.

You can see how charred the ground looks after the fire goes through. It's amazing how quickly the grasses and such recover. Here's what the ground looks like about a week after the burn:

and another plot that is around two weeks:

and then three weeks later, quite green indeed.

When it comes time to scythe it down for some hay, we'll return to these pastures.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Maple Syrup, Part 2

In the last part, we collected the sap. And boy did we have sap! At least, we were impressed. In the course of a couple of days, we easily collected 8-9 gallons of sap with no signs of stopping. That amount of sap made a good amount for trying to boil down into an appreciable amount of syrup. The general rule is that for every 10 gallons of sap you'll end up with a quart of syrup. The better your tree (in terms of sugar content of the sap), the less sap needed per quart, of course. As it turns out, you can tap several types of trees to make syrup: birch, hickory, poplar, black walnut.... We're just doing maple here; next year we can try branching out once we get a little experience.

Here's that sap again:

and here's a close up. It really does look like water.

Since the way to make the syrup is simply to boil away all that water until you get syrup, PLUS when you consider that general rule of thumb of 40 gallons of sap go into each gallon of finished product - well, that's a lot of steam. One option is to set up a steam room for yourself so you can experience a spa treatment while the sap boils down. The option most people go for is to work outside so that you don't peel any wallpaper or paint off your walls. To do this, I dragged out our little box wood stove as a heat source. Here is the fire, finally started on a windy day outside.

Since I don't have "proper" evaporator pan, I used the bottom half of my enamelware turkey roaster. You'll want to use a reasonably large yet shallow pan if you can get one (roaster bottom, lasagna pan, etc), since you want a large surface area so the sap can evaporate more quickly. If you really get into making syrup, I suppose buying or making a dedicated syrup pan would be in order. Perhaps I'll follow the directions in my syruping guide for next year - but for now, the roasting pan will have to do.

Once I got the fire going, I set the roaster on the top and filled it pretty full of sap. This is what it looked like all set up, with lots of scrap wood on hand for the fire.

Here you can see it just starting to steam.

From here on, this process became a matter of keeping the fire good and hot, refilling the roasting pan as necessary, and occasionally skimming off the foam and such that developed. This is what the foam typically looks like (actually taken inside, but this was a better picture than my outside shot).

You want to keep the foam skimmed off to maintain a "clean" surface area for evaporation - that way, the water vapor doesn't have to fight its way through the foam to escape, thus maximizing the evaporation.

So this whole evaporating process goes on - and on, and on, and on. It took all day to boil down our 8-9 gallons of sap. As the sap boiled down in the pan, I added more sap from our jars - filtered through a strainer when necessary, skimmed off foam, added more wood to the fire, and generally did other things outdoors, checking on it every 15-20 minutes or so. Eventually it was all boiled down except for perhaps a half-roasting pan's worth of not-quite-done-yet syrup. It tasted very sweet, but still not there yet.

At this point, I decided to take it in and finish it on the stove - a perfectly legitimate step. It was also getting quite dark outside, making it hard to see what I was doing - another good reason to head inside. I transferred the syrup into a large heavy pot that would fit nicely on the stove. Here's our pot of proto-syrup just starting to boil. It has a nice layer of foam on it, just waiting to be skimmed.

And so it boils and boils....Eventually, the boiling process transitions into the syrup process. The syrup will start to foam up all over the pot, rather than looking like boiling water. Here's what that looks like - first, as it begins:

and as the foam rises, quite suddenly, to here

and then to here

Left to its own devices, the foam would quickly overflow the pan. It's kind of funny that after all those hours and hours and hours of boiling, this foaming and potential boil-over thing happens in like a minute or less. To tame the foam, one trick is to touch the surface of the foam with some butter. I loaded up my spoon with roughly a pat of butter and did so. It actually melted and fell in the syrup, which gave it that butter-maple taste at the end of it all. Here's the butter headed towards the foam

and here it is post-butter.

From this point, you want to check it pretty frequently. One way to check when you've hit the syrup phase is to use a candy thermometer. You want the temperature of the syrup to hit 7 - 7.5 degrees F over the boiling point of water. Since the actual boiling point of water differs from place to place due to elevation/local atmospheric pressure, if you want to be super precise about hitting the right temperature, you'll want to boil some water, measure your "local" boiling point, and use that as a baseline for your own "syrup" temperature.

You can also purchase a hydrometer, which effectively measures the density of your syrup. Since I don't have one of those (although they are pretty cheap - I may purchase one for next year) and I didn't bother to dig out my candy thermometer, I used the old-fashioned "sheeting" test. You want to take the syrup off the heat as soon as the sheeting starts.

I used a thin spatula to make this test. Dip in the syrup - if it runs off like water, then it needs to boil more. Eventually when you dip the spatula in, it'll still run off, but it will "wrinkle" and lay on the spatula in a "sheet". It'll look something like this:

To the side, I had prepared a Mason canning jar somewhat in advance (did this while the syrup was headed towards the sheeting phase). I did this in my usual way: cleaned the jar with hot soapy water, filled with hot water, washed a lid and ring and dropped the lid in some nearly-boiling water until I was ready to put it on the jar.

I put my canning funnel on the jar to 1) support some cheesecloth over the top of the jar for a filtering pass and 2) to avoid spilling boiling hot syrup all over the sides of the jar. Here's my setup with my jar and funnel. I took my piece of cheesecloth off for this picture, since it was so big, it covered it all, which made it look like a small ghost on my stove. The Mason jar also still has hot water in it - that has to be dumped out before filling.

It's time to strain the finished syrup into the hot jar. I folded over a piece of cheese cloth, rinsed it out both to wet it down so that it would lay in the funnel nicely and filter well, and also to, well, rinse it out. You'll want to filter the finished syrup to remove small crystals of niter that formed during the boiling process - they can lend a bitter taste to the syrup. Some people filter several times; I did mine just once. I had spent all day with this syrup, and it was now coming up on midnight. Although I loved it and all, I was starting to feel pretty sleepy.

Here's the filtering pass - I ladled the syrup from the pan through the cheesecloth into the jar until I felt like I could just pour from the pan.

I popped the lid on the jar, put a ring on it, and let it sit. Before I went to bed, I heard the seal make with that distinctive little "ping".

In the morning, I checked the seal, and it was good and tight, and it would likely have stored just fine like that for a good long while. However, we were all itching to try out our new syrup, so really, I just could've put it in the refrigerator. Incidentally, if you make your own syrup but don't can, you can store it pretty successfully in the refrigerator or freeze it. I like to can, and it's easy with that hot syrup - no need to hot water or pressure process. I guess it uses what used to be called "open-kettle" canning, which personally I still use for jams and jellies and such. Open-kettle is no longer a recommended canning process though - just so you know. But I personally have never had any problems with it for high-sugar products.

This was definitely a high-sugar product. Here's a picture of the jar before opening - you can see the seal is tight (the lid is slightly indented/pushed down)

and here's something to give you an idea of the finished product. The spoon is visible, but kind of blurry.

From here, it was off to waffles! The syrup was really good, although I think I slightly overcooked it, since it had a caramel overtone to it. The next batch I made came out with "just" maple syrup flavor, probably because I wasn't trying to take pictures too. :D

If anyone out there tries this for themselves, let me know! I would love to hear your stories about syrup-making!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Maple Syrup, Part 1

This year we decided to try our hands at making maple syrup. We'll walk through what we did; in this first part, we'll go through and collect the sap.

We started out with a collection of spiles purchased from Lehman's, a spile driving tool, and a generally highly recommended book on the subject, Backyard Sugarin' by Rink Mann. Here are some of the spiles

and here is the driving tool.

Here is the way the driving tool fits into the spile. The tool keeps you from damaging/bending the spile when you drive it into the tree with a hammer. Once the hole is drilled, you put the more "closed" end of the spile in the tree - spout out - and fit the driver into the spile. A few strikes with a hammer fits it nicely into place.

Here's a picture of the brace and drill bit - one picture with my "helper":

and here's one with the helper's butt shooed away from the brace handle:

The bit size is 7/16", which is the standard size for these spiles. Obviously this is a manual tool, but I'm sure a power drill would work just as well. The big thing is to make sure and have the right size drill bit for your spiles - and if you buy commerically manufactured ones, the 7/16" bit size is what you want to get.

And here is the tree - with cats at this particular moment.

This is clearly a nice sized tree, capable of carrying at least 3 buckets and likely 4. I'm only going to put 3 on it, however, out of respect. One of the "rules" is that you shouldn't tap a tree under 10" diameter; another is that you really shouldn't put more than 4 taps on a tree, regardless of what monster tree you have have. That's not to say that people haven't successfully put more on a tree, but I'm not going to overdo it. 3 taps will do quite well for our first attempts.

Here's Jonathan making our tap hole:

And here I am finishing up the hole. Note that in both pictures the drill bit is making a slight upward angle into the tree. The hole should be some 2.5" - 3" deep. This is deep enough to comfortably tap into the sap flow but still stay well away from the heartwood.

Here's a shot of the drill bit in the tree,

and here's a shot of the resultant hole. The "foamy" stuff underneath the hole is sap starting to flow out already.

Here's a shot of the spile in the tree. I didn't get a good shot of the actual hammering into the tree, but suffice to say that a few taps on the driving tool with the hammer set it into place with very little trouble. You can see the sap starting to run out of the spile in this picture as well.

From here, the question became how to best collect all this lovely sap. After a few tries with some plastic milk jugs and stainless steel buckets, I made a hybridized system with some vinyl tubing, milk jugs, and everyone's favorite tool, duct tape.

Here's a shot of my tubing over the spile - no duct tape, so you can see what it was doing. I used 3/4" tubing, which slipped easily over the end of the spile up to the hanging bracket. The other end was also secured with duct tape. The tube did a great job of sending the sap into the top of my milk jug as well as keeping out the flies that were attracted to the sap as the weather warmed a bit. The chickens keep a sharp eye on what's going on.

Here's a shot of the sap collected basically overnight. Although a bit hard to see, it also gives you an idea of how the tubes were duct-taped to the jugs. I had to graduate from the 1-gallon milk jugs to one of our 5-gallon water jugs to take care of all the sap. The extra is collected in the glass jars. It's very clear - like very clean water. If you taste it, it does have the very slightest sweet taste to it.

In the next part, we'll boil this sap down into some maple syrup.