Boiling Maple Sap to Syrup with a Thermometer – Maple Sugaring at Home Anywhere – Part 2

This is a continuation of Maple Sugaring at Home Anywhere – Part 1 where we covered the surprisingly simple process of how to collect sap from just about any maple tree.  Now, it’s naturally time to make that sap into syrup!  Sure, you could drink it straight, but who wants to read about maple watering when you could be maple sugaring?

The way I’ve decided to do this involves boiling inside a kitchen and using a thermometer to check the temperature.  I personally use a digital meat thermometer that I find works really well, but really I’m sure any kitchen thermometer is fine.  Sure, the kitchen is my mom’s instead of mine since I don’t have a hood or downdraft at the moment in my under construction kitchen to take care of the steam problems, but a kitchen is a kitchen!

Maple sap becomes maple syrup after boiling it to about 7 degrees over the temperature water boils in your area.  Since I’m about sea level, I boil the sap until it reaches 219 degrees since water boils at 212, though this can vary depending on where you are.  If you accidentally over boil it very slightly, say to 220 degrees, all is well, just know it’s likely not going to pour out through a filter, and it will have the consistency of thin honey.  Delicious, delicious honey.  It takes roughly 3 hours to boil 1 gallon of sap down in a giant pot.  It’s a great activity to do while making complicated or extravagant dinners.  There will be humidity as a result of the boiling, but processing in smaller batches doesn’t make this much of an issue even in the Pacific Northwest, though some people prefer to process their syrup in large batches or to boil their sap down enough to put it in containers until they’re ready to boil it down to syrup with more at a time for the final processing.  I personally do it in smaller batches until they’re completed since I like eating waffles with some freshly made maple syrup.

Now, I’ve read about a number of ways to do this, and most involved expensive equipment.  Namely, a refractometer.   While this probably works amazingly well, as someone who only recently started, I wanted to make sure I liked it and that it went well before I got involved in buying any materials I can’t use for anything else.  So!  Kitchen thermometer it was!

Too long; didn’t read version:

  1. Collect sap into a boil-friendly container
  2. Boil on stove or outdoor burner (for hours) until the temperature reaches 7 degrees above the boiling point of water
  3. Skim foam off while boiling whenever you notice it getting frothy
  4. Filter (if you didn’t over boil) through a coffee filter into a container.  If over boiled, just pour in and embrace the woody flavor.

Alright, now down to the details.

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Maple Sugaring at Home Anywhere

I recently started making my own maple syrup at home in the Pacific Northwest, and it’s surprisingly easy to do and is one of the few hobby farming activities I’ve done that should pay for itself within a couple months.

I love maple flavored anything.  I always have, and I always will.  Since I was a small kid, when others had brown sugar in their oatmeal, I wanted maple syrup.  When I made snickerdoodles in college, the coating was always maple sugar.  When I decided to make my own sugar, the answer was naturally maple.

Previously, I had mistakenly believed you had to have a sugar maple and likely be in Vermont to have much luck in this adventure, but thanks to ignoring everything I read initially on the internet, I realized it wasn’t really that hard.  If you had any maple trees that weren’t dainty little dwarfs, you were probably fine.  I believe the tree I’m currently tapping is a Pacific Northwest native, the vine maple.  The tree is quite large compared to most vine maples in the area, and I suspect it’s quite old.  It also fortunately is directly next to my parent’s pond.  I’m not sure if it’s the amount of water it has access to, the fact it’s an old tree, or what, but despite everything I’ve read it typically gives 1-2 gallons of sap a day depending on weather conditions.  Keep in mind, boiled down to syrup, 1 gallon is only about 4 ounces of syrup or half a cup.  2 gallons is about 1 cup or 8 ounces.  This varies, of course, depending on the tree you’re using.

This post aims to go over how simple it is to start collecting sap.  All you really need is a spile, a bucket, a maple tree, and weather that’s below freezing at night and over freezing during the day.  The next will cover processing the sap without buying expensive equipment to measure sugar content. While I think this maple syrup package is probably the most economical option I’ve found if you’re interested in 3 spiles and stainless steel setups, for those wondering if it’s right for you, I personally purchased a single bucket, lid, and spile (links below in read more – though know I have no love for the included book) from the same company for starting out.  That said, it works great, and hasn’t even blown out in our recent terrible winds!

Too long; didn’t read version

  1. Find a maple tree, the wider the trunk the better
  2. Wait for the weather to be freezing at night, above freezing during the day (PNW winter weather!)
  3. Drill a slightly upward aimed hole to fit your spile in the tree
  4. Tap your spile into the tree gently with a hammer
  5. Hang bucket on spile
  6. Check to see if bucket is full as frequently as you like,  but at least daily
  7. Boil sap until it’s syrup, skimming off foam if you don’t want it to taste woody
  8. Pour into container and refrigerate – or consume immediately if you have no self control like yours truly!

Materials for Maple Sugaring – The Economics

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Mama Heating Pad Brooder – Brooding Chicks Without A Heat Lamp

Aussie and Blue heating in to nap under mama heating pad.

My first year of raising chicks, I naturally didn’t have a broody hen to take care of raising chicks. Instead, I raised them indoors. Since it’s almost chick days at the local feed store, I thought I’d share what I did for their heating needs instead of using a heat lamp.

My original brooder box set up in an old water heater box.

After reading a number horror stories about heat lamp fires, heat lamps falling and killing the chicks, seeing the chicks trample each other under the heat lamps in feed stores, and hearing them chirp relentlessly since they didn’t have darkness to sleep comfortably, I decided I wanted to see if there was something else I could do. After searching around backyard chickens, I heard of something called an ecoglow brooder from brinsea.  It seemed like a great product that used radiant heat to warm up chicks hiding underneath like they would their mamas, but it was so expensive for such a small one!  I would likely need the $150 version for my chicks since I had 9 chickens and 4 ducks at the time, not to mention later when I needed to swap to another heating method for the ducks when their trampling ways became a problem I would have suffered the expense again.

So I decided I needed an alternative.  After searching the net, I eventually heard rumblings of people who used heating pads as brooders.  It seemed fairly simple.  People found a heating pad worked really well as long as it didn’t have the auto off function.  I personally purchased this sunbeam extra large heating pad because it was 1 ft x 2ft, making it plenty large to brood my chicks, it was under $20, and it didn’t have an auto-off function.  It also worked well using the highest setting for the first week, then medium.  On top of that, during the winter when my chicks were chickens, I used the same heating pad to help keep my water unfrozen when weather was under 20 degrees F in my barn.

Chicks run around until cold, then go under mama heating pad!

Making the brooder was quite easy.

  1. Cover the heating pad with either a puppy piddle pad or an old towel you don’t mind bleaching rigorously
  2. Make a cave shape using a solid material that will allow the chicks to feel the heat still (I used hardware cloth scraps, but I’ve seen other people using fencing left overs as well – the important thing is it needs to be stable enough to stand up even with some chicks sleeping on top of it)
  3. Make sure sharp edges are dulled or cover sharp edges with electrical tape or something similar
  4. Tuck the towel edges down so that chickens can have darkness like being under a hen when sleeping below
  5. Make sure cave has two exits for younger birds in case fatty birds take up all the space

Hardware cloth worked well to adjust the shape of the brooder as the chicks grew so it could be taller.  Since I raised bantams with fatty dual purpose birds, I was also able to keep the back of the brooder lower than the front like a cave so smaller birds could go further back for heat.  One thing I learned was to make sure none of the edges are against a wall.  Chicks leaping out wasn’t so much an issue was the fact sometimes they’d pile up and one would slide into a weird spot against the wall.  There were no casualties, but it freaked me out enough that I made sure it wasn’t an option in the future.

Hardware cloth frame with electrical tape over edges covered by heating pad then towel.

Sturdy enough for chicks to sleep on top while others sleep underneath.

Exits on both sides in case fatty ducks are blocking the way!

 

Large pad size makes the shape changeable as the chicks grow.

 

Brooder moved outside when the chicks did, though they mainly just huddled together on the floor to sleep until they learned about roosts.

I hope this helps anyone looking into using a method other than a heating lamp for brooding their chicks in the upcoming months!  Please let me know if anyone has any questions about it, since I was really glad this is how I chose to brood my chicks.  It was inexpensive, allowed chicks to have a fairly normal sleep pattern and to get away from heat when they didn’t need it on their own, and transitioned easily with them as they grew.  I definitely recommend it to anyone who would consider brooding chicks.

Converting an Empty Barn Stall into a Chicken Coop

Since chick days are nearly here again, I’ve started thinking about how we built our chicken coop by converting a barn stall.  I know when I was originally planning my coop, I really wish I had seen more pictures of people who had larger coops and other converted stalls since I needed more inspiration, so I decided to share the love.  When we bought our house, we were fortunate enough to buy a property that had an old barn.  While it was unkept, mice were definitely living in the insulation around the roofing, only a single gutter that was half way down, and there was rot around a number of areas with a completely covered, leaky roof, it had good bones.  On top of that, there was also a spot near the garage where the former owners had cut a giant hole through the siding and placed a dog run.  Given that our dog is spoiled with walks, the run wasn’t really necessary, but it did provide us with free chicken fencing.

After weeks of research, purchasing a likely excessive number of chicken books and reading adamantly, having my husband beg and plead for me to wait longer despite my gluttony for fresh, organic, free range and pasture raised chicken eggs, I finally got chicks at the local feed store near the end of March.  Saving for the fact my Ameraucana actually lays brown eggs instead of blue, they were all good egg layers, healthy (with the exception of some very sickly silkie chicks I bought from a store I won’t go to again), and docile.  They were definitely more expensive than ordering from a hatchery online, but less expensive than going to the seemingly snooty hatchery in our area.  While I hope to find breeders locally for when I attempt raising meat birds, there weren’t any that I could find originally.

To be clear, I was aware buying chickens wasn’t going to save me oodles of money.  Just the start up costs alone (~$100 for chicks, feed, feeding containers, heating pads, etc, with roughly an additional $15-20 per chick to get it to the age of laying thanks to organic feed costs), was spending the equivalent of nearly a year’s worth of eggs at $5 a dozen, and since one happened to be a rooster he turned into a slightly expensive (albeit the most delicious broth I’ve ever made) dinner when he kept attacking the hens for sweet loving and me when I entered the coop.

So why did I drag my poor husband through the joys of poultry ownership?  I had tasted the best eggs ever, and I had to drive 30-45 minutes to a farmer’s market in Redmond to get them.  Even then, they were only available in the spring.  The yolk was a deep yellow, almost orange like a duck’s yolk.  The egg white’s were firm, holding their shape and the yolk not breaking even when you were a clumsy mess.  I had eaten these eggs of perfection costing me $8 a dozen plus drive time plus only being seasonally available (since otherwise they sold all their winter eggs to a fancy restaurant nearby), and the gourmet snob in me couldn’t go back to the “free-range” (access to outdoors somehow maybe), organic eggs that were far too old to hold their yolks at the grocery store.  No, I needed my eggs to have been laid that week, and I needed the chickens to have eaten the bugs they found in the grass and lazed around in the sun getting some high quality vitamin D while getting a dust bath, and I needed that year round.  In summary,  I’m spoiled.

Don’t get me wrong – I also appreciate the wellbeing of the animals that feed me, but given it was my first time owning birds that weren’t parrots and my first time raising anything to live in a barn, I wasn’t so arrogant to think I would do it better than farmers who had dedicated their lives to caring for animals.  Then again, given what I’ve read about commercial poultry practices, maybe I should have been a little bit more arrogant…

So these poopy guys happened!

You’ll notice there are ducks here.  That is a story for another day, but know they very shortly were moved into a separate brooding box because they got very big very fast while the chickens did not.  This would have been fine if they also didn’t have a tendency to stampede everywhere they went and swim in their waterer.

I’m going to confess straight up – this was another project that my bum shoulder resulted in my husband and father having to help me / do a vast majority of the work on the project.  I had the idea down, but the physical capabilities were drastically lacking.  I realized this at one point when my dad was standing on top of rafters he had built with scrap wood on top of the barn stall and using a power nailer to get everything secured.

That said, I did at least make the plans, so hooray.  First, as I mentioned before, we were renovating our kitchen and had removed a wall and heightened the ceiling.  This left us with a lot of scrap wood.  I strongly recommend that if you have any leftover wood from projects that you save it for moments like these, because aside from nails and hardware cloth, building our giant chicken coop didn’t cost anything.  In fact, I didn’t even have to build their roost since we already had a giant ladder-shaped object assembled from removing it from our ceiling!

Materials needed:

Roughly 4 ft x 50 ft of 1/4″ hardware cloth (I ended up using a little of 2 ft tall stuff my dad had lying around as well)

2 door hinges

A lock

More 2×4, 4x4s, 2x6s, and 2×8 scraps than I can count.  Get for free from people doing renovations!

Nails

Tin snips (to cut hardware cloth)

Nail gun and fun (if you want to be cool like my dad and bust that stuff out fast)

I ended up purchasing the hardware cloth at Amazon, since for 1/4″ cloth that was 4 ft tall and 50 ft long, it ended up being less than half the cost of local stores, though that likely varies depending on where you live.  Getting the tallest hardware cloth possible for the price is definitely helpful since it leads to a lot less cutting in general.  If you’ve ever slowly cut through 1/4″ hardware cloth, you know it’s not a particularly fun task.

This is a difficult thing to give plans for, since everyone’s coop will vary.  That said, I can tell you at least the basics.  The predators I was dealing with include raccoons, otters, cats, dogs, coyotes, rats and potentially bears.  I conceded that if a bear comes into my barn, they can eat everyone.  I will not defeat the mighty bear short of setting up a lot of electric fencing, and given my neighbor’s dogs wander into my yard all the time I didn’t want to subjugate them to a pain barrier.    For everyone else, hardware cloth was the answer.

I got 1/4″ hardware cloth to handle my rodent problem, but in hindsight they were dedicated enough to dig underneath my foot deep covers in some areas, and my trailing bottoms in others.  My present solution to the rodent problem is a metal bucket to store feed and encouraging the barn owls in my area to set up nests.  The rodents also dig underneath the concrete foundation, so I’m not sure that’s a battle I’m going to win.  Back when my white silkie liked to sleep on the floor, despite the chainlink over the run that is on top of concrete, when I left the barn door out to the run open one night, something came in and ran off with her.  For people not able to be home, some sort of automatic opening and closing method for the coop would be good, but I typically just shut the door earlier and have my automatic timer take care of the lights if I ever have to be gone at dusk.

Things to consider:

  1. Metal bucket to store feed and keep out rodents
  2. A roost – my chickens only really sleep at the top of it, though, so doesn’t have to be too fancy
  3. Nesting boxes don’t have to be complicated.  Mine are a plastic storage tub filled with bedding that’s next to the entryway, one next to the bottom of the roosts inside a cardboard box, and two birds still decide to lay behind the feed bin outside of a nesting box entirely.  The plastic tub is nice for easily moving broody hens and her eggs.
  4. Dirt floor unless using a smaller coop, then wood is fine, but dirt floors allow you to do deep litter without rotting wood
  5. Concrete ground exterior keeps neighbor dogs and coyotes from being able to get into the coop – it’s very nice!
  6. Hardware cloth covering holes that murderers might get in through
  7. An elevated place to have chicken water (mine’s on top of a cinderblock I found in my yard)
  8. A locking door raccoons can’t easily open.

Technically to be considered “organic”, chickens are supposed to have access to feed at all times.  My chickens sleep at night, so I personally put my feed away in a metal bucket where rats can’t irritate me at night, and then take it out when they wake up in the morning.

Front of the coop – the human entrance

Side of the coop with another empty barn stall and a leaky roof!

Roof – only need beams to have hardware cloth cover them, so ours is a little over constructed.

Elevated waterer, under-door region covered in, and metal bucket!

Do I really need a coop that’s over 12 ft x 12 ft?  Probably not, but I will say the birds like having the large coop during rainy days.  While they love their outdoor run when it’s nice out, they also have plenty of space to scratch and peck indoors when weather isn’t agreeable, and if an emergency comes up where I won’t be able to lock them in at night, it’s nice knowing I can tuck them in early but not feel like I’m holding them captive in a tiny box.  Since I live in the Pacific Northwest, weather is rarely agreeable.  It’s definitely not necessary, but it allows me to use deep litter unlike the small store bought coops.

Wish list for future improvements:

  1. Painted interior and roost so I can wash off the poos more easily
  2. Expand chicken run so they have more room outside when they aren’t running wild and free in my yard

Pullets dog piling on an old pallet.  So many easy roost options!

I hope all these photos can help someone get inspiration for their own coops!  If anyone has managed to keep rodents from digging feet deep to get in their coop, please let me know how!

Kitchen Renovation Regrets

My husband and I bought a delightful piece of property in February of 2016.  You’ll notice this blog post is dated January of 2017.  That’s right, it’s been nearly a year, so to give you some background, let me tell you a bit about our beautiful piece of property and the unfortunate things that rested inside.

Before I get on, though, I feel like I should include some useful advice from what we’ve learned since it’s a rather long post and all useful information will be buried inside.  Mainly, I have two bits of advice since they were things we did that my former contractor father found surprising and helpful.  We were fortunate enough to know someone who is super into recycling metal for his income, so we were able to recycle hundreds of pounds of metal from the old, broken appliances as well as the giant metal sink they had in place as well as nails and other assorted things.  I also used the tresses to make my chicken’s roost in their coop.  Most areas have people who recycle metal near them, so definitely look that up if you’re doing a major remodel.  Second, thanks to craigslist, some strangers picked up all the cabinets and the questionable countertop that went with them, including the ones severely damaged from water, mice teeth, and fire.  They were mainly going to be used in people’s shops, which is a good second use for old cabinets.

I gave them away for free, but in hindsight I likely could have charged something as well.  My dad was just glad we were able to avoid taking them to the landfill, saved hundreds in dump fees not to mention the time we saved, and shocked people would want the old cabinets.  I was grateful that since I wasn’t charging anything that when people flaked out,  I left unclaimed cabinets outside under the porch without guilt and strangers came by and picked them up for me.

Now, back to our main focus!

Our house is on a lot just under 3 acres.  Where we live (the greater Seattle area), this is nearly impossible to find anymore without handing the seller your bank account access information and giving them permission to take whatever they want for the rest of your life.  We were fortunate enough to get it for a fairly reasonable price given it was a bank foreclosure after spending half a year looking for a property, offering on many, and failing to get a reasonable price every single time.  That said, we also live in one of the few remaining rural communities in our area that still has fairly easy freeway access.  While the commute is definitely less than ideal for my poor husband who has since started working in Seattle rather than the Eastside, it’s still not terrible considering we love our home.

When we first purchased it, however, there were many problems with the house.  Namely, the kitchen didn’t have any working appliances, some mice had made a home in the electrical in what was supposed to be an island which lead to a small fire at some point, and there was water damage throughout.  That doesn’t include leaks elsewhere around skylights, the mice living in the insulation in the ceiling and in the basement, the lovely little mouse door leading to said basement, the rolling fields of blackberry bushes gently winding their way up my neighbor’s fences and in what I assume was once a lawn in our own yard, numerous holes from rage punches into walls, leaking plumbing, leaking faucets, a hole where I’m certain a shower was supposed to be, which, by the way, also housed a nice family of mice.  None of these things were terrible, and we were very fortunate to find out our house actually didn’t need a new roof like we had originally anticipated, and it had a barn and a pond to boot!  All my childhood dreams of being surrounded by farm animals could be a reality!

nightmare-shower

This “shower” has been the scene for many of my nightmares involving zombie mice in plumbing.

That said, the kitchen aspect certainly did inhibit the comfortably living in the house thing as someone who cooks a vast majority of our meals and the components that make them (homemade broth is the best!)

genmid-867550_6_1

Hello, old kitchen with your illegally wired second stove, floods, and fire!

My father used to be a contractor, but given he wasn’t exactly great at figuring out how much to charge people and had an unfortunate habit of trying to give everyone a great deal that usually ended with him working for less than minimum wage, he had resumed his courier work.  That said, he was very skilled, and kind enough to volunteer to help us.  While my husband is the self-proclaimed “mother of IT” (thank you, Game of Thrones, for making my husband think the greatest title to have was “mother” as in “mother of dragons” instead of “father” or “king”), he and I both hadn’t really had the opportunity to work on our handy skills beyond mounting TVs and assembling shelving units.

Originally, we were planning on staying with my parents while we got the kitchen ready.  This plan changed when we realized how difficult trying to get pregnant (or just enjoying a certain recreational marital activity) is when your sleeping accommodations are 2 feet away from your parents’.  So, we set up a studio apartment in the future office of our house thanks to it having a mini bar.  With a toaster oven, pressure cooker, and an induction cooktop, we had every college student’s dream kitchen and were ready to take on breakfast.

dream-kitchen

Hello, College Steph’s dream kitchen and Spoiled Steph’s cramped reality.

Now, let’s talk kitchen progress, shall we?

I’ve had appliances for my new kitchen sitting in what will one day be my living room since February.  I’ve also had my future cabinets sitting in my future great room since April.  I at one point owned granite, but having realized that the kitchen was nowhere near my future decided to get my deposit back rather than hold onto it given it didn’t seem like a finished kitchen was anywhere near my future.

It’s not from a lack of effort that we found ourselves kitchen-free still nearly a year into the project.  We had a good pace of working on it once a weekend, but numerous delays kept coming up.  The electrician we used is a good family friend, but he’s also very busy due to actually being good at his job, so once we got the kitchen ready for him it took him about a month and a half to have the ability to come in.

On top of that, I have an old shoulder injury that makes me fairly useless for most of the heavier lifting aspects of the work, and so anything overhead or too demanding on the upper body leaves just my dad and husband to the tasks.  Given they both have full time+ jobs, that means they mainly only had the opportunity to work on it about once a week, and with my dad’s tendency to offer help to anyone in sight, he got caught up with a few other things during this time period (including 2 months of redoing his brother’s roof, a month of cleaning up my grandma’s old rental so she could sell it, and a back injury that took about a month and a half to get in good shape again).  Consequently, there was a lot of down time where we weren’t really doing much of anything since my dear husband and I, as well intentioned as we are, are fairly helpless without his guidance on something as big as redoing our entire kitchen.  We did spend a good portion of that time doing other exciting things like eradicating all the texture on our walls, fixing plumbing on the pump, dealing with blackberries, building a chicken coop (or should I say chicken suite?!), prepping a garden bed, digging bastard trenches, and other fun projects, but still no kitchen.

So, after another fine evening of cooking on my little induction cooktop, I decided to review the progress that has been made.  Our kitchen started out with a strange sunken ceiling that inhibited the light from the skylight to fill the room and made the room feel crowded.  We removed a door to grant more cabinet space, and took out a wall blocking the great room from its greatness.  We redid some plumbing, had an electrician make it so our lights worked as intended and our double oven and island would be good to go as well, wired for a chandelier, and then redid the insulation throughout to remove the glory of mouse feces.

There are a few things I regret design-wise.  I forgot that part way through our ceiling on the left we have a drop, which will be addressed through magic.  Also, where we took out the door there is now complete and utter darkness.  This will maybe be fixed with cabinets, but right now I want it to have a window so I can see into my pretty blackberry forest and admire my barn.  I also think we likely should have stopped the kitchen before the pantry entryway rather than extending it past it, though I’m not sure how clear that is in photos.  I’m not sure which makes more sense.  I prefer the pantry being officially part of the kitchen, but that little indent towards the lower ceiling area is a bit strange.  Also when I measured the ceiling heights I failed to realize at the time that part of the ceiling had dropped in the area I measured due to previous homeowners cutting out a beam that supported the upstairs so they could run some cables through.  We fixed that by jacking up the beam and wedging another one to support it after sticking wood through the hole, but still may have some fun consequences for our backsplash.  I originally wanted backsplash going up to the cabinets, but now I may have something shorter in hopes that the differences in ceiling heights are less noticeable.

Screen Shot 2017-01-18 at 9.35.26 PM.png

One day, my kitchen will look like this.  Sort of.

Well, that’s our progress so far!  I’m hoping to check in with some good news in the future where my spoiled butt gets to use a real oven again, and I can go back to making (and eating all of) my fattening homemade pizza.  I know; I know.  First world problems.