While countless folks get excited for sugaring season and the subsequent deluge of maple products, the sap itself often gets left in the dust. Many people view the dilute sap as a pesky impediment to their sweet, sweet maple syrup, seeing as they have to boil it down to 2.5% of its initial volume to produce syrup. However, the sap is actually one of my favorite parts of sugaring season!
The sap has a subtle sweetness similar to black locust blossoms, but with a pleasant hint of tree. It does not have the strong flavor of concentrated maple syrup. Some folks compare it to coconut water, although maple sap has a much more pleasant flavor and a thinner consistency.
Depending on the species and the tree, maple sap contains around 2-4% sugar, and it contains all of the nutrients that are discarded in the sugaring process as “niter”. According to the USDA FoodData Central website, the sap contains a range of nutrients including Calcium, Iron, Potassium, and Manganese.
To procure some maple sap, you can tap any species of maple (genus Acer), although sugar maples A. saccharum are the most common. My yard is full of red maples A. rubrum, so that’s what I’ve been sipping on this year. For a small family primarily interested in drinking sap, one tap should be sufficient.
At the beginning of sugaring season, early March here in the Upper Valley, the sap runs pure and clear, just like water. However, as the season progresses, a bacterial culture forms in the collection buckets. From my understanding, this culture is responsible in part for the darkening of the syrup as the season progresses. It can also be responsible for making you sick if you drink it without boiling.
A good rule of thumb is that if the sap is pure and clear just like fresh water, it should be okay to drink plain. However, as soon as any color or change in viscosity occurs, you need to boil it for at least 1 minute before drinking. The sap should be safe to drink after boiling - the yellow-tinged sap is routinely used in maple syrup production, so no need to worry about the slight color change.
Do be aware that maple sap spoils relatively quickly. On warmer days, when the high is above freezing, you should collect your sap once a day and drink it or move it to the fridge. Make sure to drink it regularly - if it smells off to you, throw it in your garden for your plants - they love the nutrients!
For optimal safety, I wanted to make a recipe that included the minute-long boil as part of its process. Tea and hot drinks made a lot of sense and since I am a lifelong masala chai fan, I felt drawn to adapt my favorite recipe to my wild ways (find some other ideas below!). Maple sap was a natural fit since masala chai is typically sweetened. I was pleased to find that the sap provided enough sweetness for my personal taste, although some folks might like to add a touch of sweetener to theirs.
I also adapted the corresponding chai spice mix to add some foraged flavor. Although cardamom is inimitable and a classic ingredient in many chai spice mixes, I decided to leave it out due to the soaring prices caused by the changing climate. While they could never truly replace cardamom, I added some ground spicebush berries to take the mix in a foraged North American direction. While classic masala chai fans may not be convinced, I present this recipe as a newfangled foraged option.
If you already have a favorite chai spice mix lying around, feel free to use it instead of the recipe provided below. I recommend using generic black tea bags for masala chai - the spice mix tends to mask any delicate flavors that emanate from high-quality tea leaves. A good simple brand is PG Tips.
Based on Meera Sodha's suggestion, I like to use the serving mugs as measuring devices. This ensures that you'll have the perfect amount of chai! Just make sure that your mug is between 8-12 ounces, or you should scale up the entire recipe. This recipe is adapted from "The perfect masala chai" in Meera Sodha's wonderful book Made in India.
Ground spicebush berries Lindera benzoin give this chai spice mix a foraged twist. For a more traditional chai, swap out the ground spicebush berries for 2 Tablespoons of ground cardamom. This recipe is the result of a few years of tinkering on Meera Sodha's chai masala to suit my personal preferences.
Incredible Wild Edibles: 36 Plants That Can Change Your Life, by Samuel Thayer, Forager's Harvest Press, 2017, pp. 187–218.
"Maple water.” FoodData Central, fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/1238489/nutrients.
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