Ah, the life of farming. You work your butt-off for something, only to have it blow-up in your face.
I guess these days I’m never surprised, and try to let these things roll-off like water (if it’s something hard to prevent, and even the ones that were a stupid mistake).
This one, is STILL a bit of a shocker though.
If you know anything about cooking maple syrup first-hand, you know the single most important thing to NEVER do is let your syrup foam-up and scorch.
We keep a big bottle of anti-foaming oil on hand (often in-hand) just in case! Anti-foaming oil is a blend of highly refined seed oils that break the tension of sugary sap-syrup when it begins to foam. It’s so refined that it breaks down almost instantly and forms a scum on the surface of the cooking syrup that you scoop out with a filter stick. It in no way affects the flavor or quality of the syrup . . . unless you do something dumb like dump the whole bottle in!
In the old days, they used butter. But butter affects the flavor and the texture of pure syrup, and we now have access to better quality oils that do the same job, so most people don’t use butter anymore.
With our pan system, we have two potential types of foam-ups: in the sap pans, and in the syrup pans.
The sap pans typically foam within minutes of adding fresh wood to the fire. The burst of extra heat meets a flood of fresh sap and the sap begins to foam. 2-3 drops of anti-foaming oil over it and poof! its gone.
The syrup pan is completely different. When the syrup pan foams, that usually a sign the sugar content spiked too high, too fast and it’s busy converting itself from maple syrup to maple candy! When this happens, it’s because the syrup was not released from your cooker and now it’s beginning to back up into the other pans, which is preventing new syrup from entering the pans. The syrup boils so fast it LIFTS off the bottom of the pan, which allows the pan to super heat itself and instantly BURN anything that suddenly touches it. It also RUINS YOUR PANS.
Adding anti-foaming oil to a syrup pan does not help unless you douse it. Better is to open the syrup valve and let out the syrup into your filtering unit, and let new sap in from the back pans. You could also quickly ladle sap-syrup from your back pans into the front pan to help thin it.
I had this exact issue earlier in the season. Luckily that did not burn my pans or my syrup.
HOWEVER, the one that happened last weekend DID.
It was our LAST cook of the season. We were excited to see how much syrup we’d actually finish-up with. The cooker pan usually retains about 5 gallons of pure syrup inside, but it’s mixed into 15-20 gallons of sap-syrup. On our last cook, we dump the two syrup pans into 5 gallon buckets, then dump all the sap from our sap pans into 5 gallon buckets. Then we cook this all down on a separate cooker.
Had we done exactly that, we MIGHT not have burned our syrup into nothingness. But we didn’t.
We had roughly 50 gallons of sap sitting out back that I’d collected earlier in the week. It wasn’t much, maybe 3 hours of cooking and might produce 1 gallon of syrup. It didn’t seem worth it to me.
I knew our neighbors across the street also cooked syrup, but since they tapped silver maples, they had a rough year with very little sap. I thought they might appreciate 50 gallons to cook.
Erik didn’t like my idea to give them our sap, and he decided we should just cook it.
Everything was rolling like normal, all systems “go”. I’d been tending the fire, and splitting wood (and coughing and hacking and choking on the smoke that was aggravating my cold).
The temperature on the syrup pan was climbing quickly, and soon it was already up to 219! I realized I had for gotten our hydrometer cup to test the sugar content and decide what temp would be syrup.
I ran-in to get it, but realized I had forgotten to wash it. I quickly ran hot water through it to clear the sticky syrup out, then I popped back outside.
Erik was tending the fire and jumped out at me instantly!
“You didn’t open the filer box and now you’ve got syrup everywhere because it hit syrup temp while you were gone!”
Now Erik was totally joking, but he was trying to get me worked up. This is also something I could see myself doing and something he would yell at me about.
Unfortunately, while he was busy harassing me, and I was trying to clear my sick, foggy brain and remember what I had been about to do, no one noticed the pans. He started to crack the valve to open the syrup into the filter box, but I told him to turn it off until I knew what temp it needed to be.
I was having a rough time scooping syrup out to dump into the hydrometer. The cooker had been leaking smoke more and more and that day was especially bad. It seemed the syrup was to temp, but thanks to the smoke, my foggy brain and Erik still harassing me, what happened next should NOT have happened.
Were I by myself, I could think better with a foggy brain. I would have run through all my steps logically like I always do. Check the syrup sugar with hydrometer, open filter box, set temp on computer system, set switch to “auto”, check the back pans. When syrup begin to release from the valve, check temp on computer and adjust valve as needed.
However, my foggy brain is easily confused and distracted and has a hard time fighting through the fog to remember what I was doing before getting distracted.
No one turned the computer back to “auto”.
The syrup hit fast and hard, and like lightning it shot through every single pan.
I was the first to notice the smell, and asked Erik what he’d done. He instantly took offense, not thinking that with a major cold I couldn’t ask exactly nicely but everything comes out gruff and husky-sounding. So again, more time wasted arguing about how I asked my question.
Meanwhile, the smell of burned sugar was filling my nose. If someone is scooping scum off the surface of the sap pans and dumping it behind the evaporator, it often hits the chimney and causes a burned smell. This is what I’d figured Erik had done.
Unfortunately, as we walked back into the shack to find out what was going on, EVERY SINGLE PAN was a pile of foam.
Erik quickly shoved the float box down to try to flood the pans with cold, fresh sap while I began dousing the pans with foaming oil.
NOTHING WAS WORKING!
Thinking fast, I quickly ran out and grabbed a bucket of sap I’d brought back from the woods and dumped it into the pans to try to cool them. Erik was standing by the fan plug and I kept yelling at him to pull the plug! Finally it dawned on him what I was saying and we shut the system down.
But it was too late.
Giant chunks of charred syrup began floating up like bodies in a shipwreck from the bottom of the flues. I silently scooped-out the remains of the dead and piled them behind the evaporator.
I carefully ladled-out some of the syrup and tasted it.
Gone. All gone. All 6 gallons down the drain.
It tasted like the charred remains of a marshmellow reduced to a pile of ashes.
And just like that, our maple syrup season was done.
No one could have predicted what happened. It was only our second year using this system and as the more cooks you do the more concentrated the sap gets. You can’t point the finger and say it was anyone’s fault, and you can run through a mile-long list of things that could have been done differently. Ultimately though, you just never know what will happen.
I now have the unpleasant task of finding out how badly damaged our pans are. Hopefully they just need cleaning. Sometimes though, pans are totally destroyed in syrup burns.