Does your maple syrup have gritty sediment at the bottom of the jars or does it look cloudy? This is the result of sugar sand (also called niter) and every sugarmaker has dealt with it in their syrup making career. While it’s not very appetizing and can sometimes affect taste, sugar sand is not a sign of spoilage or bad syrup. This article will explain what it is and how to avoid it.
What is Sugar Sand?
Think of it like this: the maple sap you started with is really the maple tree’s food and along with lots of water, it contains natural minerals. As you boil off the water, these minerals become concentrated and form into niter. Pouring hot sap and syrup through proper sugarmaking filters before bottling will usually keep sugar sand out of the syrup. This, of course, can be a challenge when you’re dealing with large batches of syrup and we really like the method one of our favorite sugarmakers uses. She suspends her final filters over a coffee pot -- you know the kind you see at graduations and church luncheons. This has two fabulous benefits: it keeps the syrup hot for bottling and it has an easy-to-use spout for pouring. To keep the best flavor, though, use a dedicated coffeemaker that has never had coffee in it.
How to Avoid Niter.
Here’s a tale from my sugar shack that shows exactly how sugar sand ends up in the jar:
Last year I admittedly was trying to do a little too much at once – i.e. preparing Easter dinner while boiling my last batch of sap (it sounded like a good multi-tasking idea at the time!). As the Easter Egg hunt progressed to the brunch-for-15, my syrup was hitting that sweet spot of 219°F and was ready to be bottled. At this point I was feeling pretty amazing . . . I was going to serve straight from the kettle, FRESH maple syrup with our homemade waffles. This is the stuff Pinterest dreams are made of! So after pulling some sweet syrup for my guests, I quickly filtered the rest and let it sit until we were done with dinner. After the dishes were done and the kids started digging through Easter baskets, I reheated the syrup to boiling and poured it directly into hot jars without filtering it again. That’s when I noticed the cloudiness and, as it cooled, the sediment sitting on the bottom.
I’d heard rumors of sugar sand before but had never dealt with it myself. After a little research with my fellow sugarmaking friends, I found my mistake: reheating it but not refiltering it. Every time pure maple syrup is heated to boiling, a little more of the minerals will form into niter and it has to be filtered again before bottling. I decided to live with these few jars as is – after all the sugar sand is perfectly fine to eat and my hungry boys don’t really care what it looks like as long as it means a big stack of pancakes for breakfast. But next time: always filter after heating.
Hydrometer and Pro Tips
Of course, cloudy syrup is not a big deal for the home hobbyist but if you’re selling your syrup, it’s an absolute no-no. That’s why most large sugarmakers use a hydrometer – not only does it guarantee the proper sugar content but allows for exact grading and virtually eliminates sugar sand. Some maple syrup makers also let their syrup sit for awhile so the sugar sand sinks to the bottom. They then carefully pour off syrup from the top, reheat it, filter it, and bottle. The remaining bottom portion (with niter) is thrown out or also reheated, filtered, and bottled. This is somewhat wasteful and creates an additional step in the process.
More info on filtering techniques can be found here. If you’d like to buy professional sugarmaking filters, click over to our product pages where you’ll find reusable filters designed for making syrup.