The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Box-elder syrup comparison

Tapping a box-elder

I was stunned by the productivity of the one box-elder tree we tapped --- after a single bright, sunny day, our two-gallon bucket was nearly completely full!

I usually cook down my sap in stages, letting a pan of the liquid sit on the wood stove until it's partway cooked down, then later combining that sap with other partway-cooked-down Cooking down maple sapsap to cook up a larger batch of syrup. But I wanted to know right off the bat whether box-elder syrup was worth making, so I took our bucket full of sap and cooked it all the way down over the course of 24 hours. The result was a quarter of a cup of syrup that lacked the bright gold color of maple syrup and the delicate vanilla-like scent, but tasted every bit as good. (Mark said the box-elder sap might be slightly less sweet per unit volume, but he still licked his lips after the taste test!)

I realized in the process that I'd never actually gotten a comparable figure for how much syrup we get out of sugar-maple sap, so I took the half gallon of sap that came from our sugar maple during the same time period and cooked it down, resulting in an eighth of a cup of syrup.

For those keeping track at home, that means my box-elder sap-to-syrup ratio is 115:1, while the sugar-maple sap-to-syrup ratio is 64:1. On the other hand, we got nearly four times as much sap from the box-elder during the same time period, so actual yields of syrup from the two trees were twice as high for the box-elder!

Box-elder and maple syrup comparison

The good news is that we have hundreds of box-elders within easy tapping distance. The bad news is that, if we go beyond tapping a tree or two at a time, we actually have to put effort into the operation. Mark asked me to estimate how many human-hours it took to create half a cup of maple syrup (what we'd produced in January) and I figured about an hour, if that. The reason the project has been so un-time-consuming in the past is that the sap bucket is right on my daily walk, so it only takes a couple of minutes to swap out containers each day. After that, the sap just sits on top of the wood stove, which we're running anyway to heat the trailer, so energy use is also kept at a minimum. For larger amounts of sap, we'd have to make special sap-carrying trips and figure out some way to cook down the sap efficiently (probably outside).

We'll have to put some thought into the right size for our own syruping operation --- the sweet spot, if you will. In the meantime, I'm experimenting with maple-syrup recipes for the next volume in the Farmstead Feast series and am taking suggestions. Other than poured over pancakes, what's your favorite way to eat maple syrup?

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I have two teaspoons of Canadian maple syrup in my coffee every single morning.

My family has been making maple syrup for home use since the early 1820s. My Grandpa was the last generation, in my particular line, to make maple syrup for the home table. I have a photo of him in the late 70s, making maple syrup. He used a huge black cast iron cauldron, hung from a log frame he constructed every year, over an open fire. It was an annual ritual, and required a lot of focus and time. BUT it was a very social time. People from the area dropped in to chat with Grandpa constantly, sitting in front of the open fire with him as he skimmed and boiled. He made the best maple syrup I tasted in my life, there is nothing else like it today. The wood smoke and ash added a wonderful element to the taste. It was made with love, and the taste reflected it.

Comment by Maggie Turner Mon Feb 9 08:48:11 2015
To flavor my homemade yogurt! or mix in homemade granola.
Comment by Karen Tue Feb 10 07:49:47 2015
For years, this was a staple of my diet. Really simple recipe from Adelle Davis: boil the syrup 4-6 minutes (soft ball stage), add a dollop of butter and a TON of walnuts, cool, add enough non-instant skim milk powder to give consistency desired. Continues to firm up as it gets cold. Alas, I no longer make it, reason being that my second year on my acreage, the walnut tree yielded a magnificent crop of plump English walnuts, has done nothing since, and supermarket walnuts taste foul by comparison.
Comment by Jackie Wed Feb 11 00:06:28 2015

We add a little bit to tomato paste to make pizza sauce. The sweetness cuts the acidity a smidge and the syrup also makes the paste a little more fluid and spreadable.

A little bit also goes to granola.

But pancakes, waffles, and french toast are the primary syrup accoutrements.

Comment by Jake Wed Feb 11 00:11:13 2015
Just to clarify my previous comment, I used to be able to get fairly decent walnuts from an upscale urban market by timing a bulk purchase during high turnover and new crop. Not so in my current small town locale. Off topic I know, but walnuts and maple syrup is a marriage made in heaven: maple walnut cake, maple walnut bars (adapt Adelle's wheat germ brownie recipe -- chewy delicious), maple walnut shortbread...
Comment by Jackie Wed Feb 11 01:33:17 2015
Can any species of maple be tapped for syrup? I understand some varieties produce more/better syrup, but are there any that can't/shouldn't be used? Thanks!
Comment by Rae Wed Feb 11 13:16:21 2015
Can you mix the sap from different types of trees and reduce to syrup? I have one maple, one walnut, and one birch near my house, and I've read they can all be tapped, so is there any reason not to mix them? I just want something tasty on my pancakes and as a sugar substitute in recipes. Thanks!
Comment by Rae Wed Feb 11 14:28:30 2015

Maggie --- Food tastes even better when it has memories behind it!

Karen --- I have a feeling that once we have homegrown milk, we'll come up with a similar combo that tastes great!

Jackie --- That sounds delicious!

Jake --- I use honey like that in pizza sauce, especially if the tomatoes are late-season and not as sweet. Definitely provides a flavor boost, although I've always felt a tiny bit like I'm cheating. :-)

Rae --- I believe you can tap any kind of maple, although the only ones I've researched are box-elders, sugar maples, and silver maples. The sugar maples have the most sugar, so you'll need to boil the others down a bit more.

As for walnut --- I'd thought that was on the don't tap list. (Although, like you, I've heard that black birch is good to tap.) What I'd do if I were experimenting is to boil down one batch of each species to make sure you like it, then mix together any with similar flavors in the future. We mix our box-elder and sugar maple sap together now that I've determined they're compatible, but I probably wouldn't mix in birch sap since it will have a minty flavor.

Comment by anna Wed Feb 11 16:36:23 2015
This is very cool. I'm glad I found this post. I am thinking of tapping our boxelders here in New Jersey. Is this something you still do? Why or why not? Thank you!
Comment by Gabriel Lee Tue May 1 09:23:44 2018
Commenting again to subscribe to feed. Have a agreat day!
Comment by Gabriel Lee Tue May 1 09:26:44 2018
I tapped Box Elders this year for the first time. What I had used before this was soft maples and I get nice syrup from the four or five I have in my yard, but I wanted to try the Box Elders just to see what it was like. It's just like you said: Tap them, and the sap runs out like you turned on a faucet! It's amazing to see! I thought the flavour was nice. It's not immediately what I think of as "maple" syrup, but very tasty in its own right. Considering the forest of them I have around my house and outbuildings, I'd tap them again for sure! :)
Comment by Jennifer Wed Aug 22 18:28:37 2018
I tap a box elder, a red maple and a silver maple. The Red maple is the shyest producer (sometimes none), the silver maple better but the box elder is by far the most productive. I combine all of them together to boil. I had way too much last year! I have considered cutting down the box elder (which I planted by my back door) as it has shaded out three beautiful flowering crabs, but I'd hate to lose the syrup - conveniently right out my door (all 3 trees are close by). I enjoyed reading this! Thank you!
Comment by Anonymous Thu Jan 9 13:24:41 2020
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