For many of us, the most memorable moment in the Little House on the Prairie books wasn’t the Ingalls’ trip West, it was the day Laura poured boiling sap on snow and made maple candy. Judging by the folksy names marketers use to sell faux maple – er, pancake – syrup, we’re not alone in our longing to experience the authentic. Genuine maple syrup is one sweet treat that’s timeless and, if you have sugar maple trees in your backyard or neighborhood, only a few days’ work away.

What you’ll need:

  • at least one sugar maple tree, at least 31” inches in circumference
  • one spout per tree, either purchased or (for the real pioneer experience) use a hollowed-out elderberry stem
  • a bucket & tin foil or a plastic milk jug with a hole cut below handle
  • outdoor fireplace or cookstove, with lots of wood
  • a large pot
  • a candy thermometer
  • sterilized canning jars

Sap starts to run when a cold snap is followed by a warm (over 40 F) day, so have your supplies ready by February or March. 

Drill a hole about 1-1/2 inches deep into healthy bark. Plan on using one tap per tree. Gently tap in the spout (you can do this ahead of time, but don’t do it when the tree is frozen solid or it will split.) Hang the bucket from the hook and cover with tin foil, or hang the plastic jug by the handle so the sap drips into the hole you cut. Collect every other day and store in the refrigerator, and boil as soon as possible. You will need 10 gallons of sap to make 1 quart of syrup.

Bring sap to boil in a large pan on an outdoor fire. No, this isn’t for authenticity; boiling sap puts off more steam than an indoor kitchen can handle. Don’t worry if there’s too much sap for one batch; it will evaporate as it boils and you can keep adding more. The sap becomes syrup when a candy thermometer shows it’s reached 7 F above the temperature of boiling water (different for every area).

Let it cool for 12 hours. Discard any sediment that’s sunk to the bottom, reheat the liquid to 180 F and pour into sterilized canning jars. Cap and serve – on fresh snow or just a fresh batch of pancakes.