Friday, November 15, 2013

How to make cane syrup at home... without a sugar cane press


As you regular readers know, I've been growing sugar cane for a few years now. The kids love it, but I've wanted to do more with our crop than just hack chunks off for chewing. Last fall when I planted a big bed of sugar cane, I knew that at some point I'd have to figure out how to process it into something useful. Since distilling is apparently illegal, rum was out... but homemade cane syrup sounded like a winner. Plus, Rachel wanted it, so it had to be made.

This is how we did it.

Step 1: Harvest Some Canes


We live in a climate with freezes in winter that will knock sugar cane down to the ground, so this is the time of year we cut canes. It's got to happen before frost or the crop will be ruined.

Cane harvesting is fun because you get to use a machete. Anything is better with a machete. I cut the canes close to the ground, then strip off the leaves and throw them over the "stumps" I leave behind. Because sugar cane is a cold-sensitive perennial, covering up the roots will keep the plant safe until next spring when a whole new batch of homegrown sugar will rise from the ground as soon as the soil warms up enough.

Step 2: Wash Those Canes


Sugarcane tends to have mildew on its stems, along with dust, dirt and the occasional bug. I don't want these in my syrup, so I scrub the canes after removing the leaves. I like to do this over one of my garden beds and rinse with the hose as I go. I don't use soap or anything, just water and elbow grease. The canes are truly beautiful when they're wet - they look like lovely varnished bamboo. Contemplating their attractiveness helps alleviate the mind-crushing boredom of washing a stack of them.

Step 3: Start Chopping 'em Up


Here's the big problem with sugar cane: it's full of fibers. You can't just put chunks in your juicer. I tried... and I don't think my Champion juicer will ever be the same. After multiple jam-ups and some smoking and shaking which only yielded about a half-cup of syrup, I realized it was pointless. Normally, sugar cane is processed with powerful presses that crush it flat and let the sugary juice run out. I don't have anything like this at home and couldn't figure out a good way to jury-rig something. Real presses are really expensive - and the Thai ones they often sell on e-bay are made for flattening squid, not crushing something as tough as sugar cane. Don't waste your money!

What we decided to do was simply chop the sugar cane into chunks, then quarter those segments. A good heavy meat cleaver works well for this.

Step 4: Boil the Chunks Of Cane


After chopping, we put the pieces into a large stockpot, covered them with water, then started boiling the sugar out of them. This takes some time and you have to make sure they stay covered with water, so top the pot off occasionally. As the cane cooks, it will lose its lustrous color and start to turn pale brown. Once the flavor of the water is the same as that of a chunk of the boiled sugar cane, you're ready to move on to the next step. This takes an hour or two - I let my tastebuds be my guide.

Step 5: Strain Out the Cane Fragments


I pour the hot sugary juice through a stainless steel strainer, which brings up a good point. Do this whole process with stainless steel implements, if you can at all help it. Aluminum cookware leeches aluminum into your food, imparting off flavors while slowly poisoning you in the process. You don't want aluminum fortified cane syrup. Just trust me on this one. That said - once you've poured off the juice into a second pot, it's time to get really cooking.

Step 6: Boil It Down


This step (and the previous one) makes your house smell amazing. It's not the molasses smell you would expect, though; it's more of a delicious sweet corn aroma. You're going to boil... boil... boil this juice until the liquid has reduced in the pot to a dangerously low level. Just keep a half an eye on it and find something nearby to do, like the dishes... or beer pong. If your juice hasn't thickened when the pot has boiled down to an inch or so in the bottom (mine is never thick enough at that point), then pour your big pot's contents into a smaller pot and proceed to the final step.

Step 7: Finish and Jar the Syrup


You're really close to the end now. It's the final stretch! At this point, you need to be careful not to let the syrup burn, turn into caramel or boil over. Cook it with constant supervision and be ready to pull it off the burner at a moment's notice. The bubbles start to get very thick and glassy as it nears syrup consistency. My first batch was very, very thick so I learned to back off a little on the final boil down. Dip a spoon regularly into the syrup and see how thick it is when it cools. Putting a few spoons aside in the freezer for this stage is a good idea. Once you've got the right thickness, pour your syrup off into a mason jar and voila! Cane syrup!

Congratulations! You've made your own home-grown, organic, vegan, free trade, sustainably harvested, locavore-approved, non-GMO, gluten-free, amazingly delicious sugar cane syrup!



Sure, it's a lot easier to juice the cane first, rather than doing the chop n' boil... but if you're just a hobbyist like me who wants a few jars of syrup to give away at Christmas, this beats having to buy a specialized extractor or find a local cane mill. I bet it would also work for sorghum... try it and see.

As a final note: this stuff tastes absolutely amazing... you're gonna try it and love it.

Happy syruping!

21 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. How many canes did you end up harvesting, and what was the corresponding yield? Looks like a fun experiment.

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    1. I would say 6 - 8 canes of 4-5' length processed down to about a half-pint. We made the syrup quite thick - thicker than most folks' cane syrup - so you might get more yield with a lighter syrup. And yeah... it was totally fun. I'm probably going to make more tomorrow.

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  3. This is fantastic! I am also curious about yield, and yield by boiling extraction vs. pressing/grinding. There are two farms in Gainesville producing cane syrup and Morningside Nature Center does a demo day every year which is a lot of fun. Cane syrup is great for baking!

    Andi Houston
    greenbasket.me

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    1. I'm sure crushing/grinding/juicing would give a better yield. I'm going to have to work on that for next year - but I'm still pleased as punch that I could pull off a great final product despite lacking serious cane processing tools.

      I'll bet the syrup would be fantastic for baking. The flavor is wonderfully rich.

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  4. I wonder if a stainless steel kitchen garbage disposal would pulp the cane up and then have the pulp pressed to extract the sugar cane juice. I've seen videos using the disposal for apple cider making.

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    1. It's a good idea. I have a feeling the fibers would really wreak havoc, though. Apples are certainly softer.

      That said... I'd happily try it if someone has a spare disposal.

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    2. I'd never thought of a food waste disposal as a sugarcane press. Interesting idea and certainly cheaper than an imported press.

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  5. Aluminium fortified syrup... MMM, MMM!
    So... How do you get it to that crystallized candy stage?

    I grew sugar cane a number of years ago... Couldn't figure out how to process it... lost it in storage when the rodents found it...

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    1. My first batch got really close to becoming caramel... I had to thin it out again. There's a trick to getting candy crystals that I believe involves "seeding" the syrup... maybe I should try that next.

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  6. How long does it keep in storage? Do you do anything special?

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    1. Hi Maine Lady - thanks for stopping by.

      If I wanted to make sure it kept indefinitely, I'd take the jars and then boiling water can them and put them away in the pantry.

      However... our syrup thus far has disappeared so quickly that I can't tell you how long it would keep without being canned. Being a thick syrup like molasses, I can't imagine it spoiling.

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  7. I made a press using an old fashion laundry wringer and a 5 gallon pail.

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    1. That's awesome. I'm surprised it could handle the pressure. Do you have a picture you can e-mail me - I'd love to post that.

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    2. I second that- would love to see how that works.

      I've also thought of how to use a mangle/wringer for pressing grated cassava to help expel cyanide, and crushed nutmeats (almond, moringa) for oil. I haven't done more than dream, though... :)

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    3. Yes... if they're built tough enough, you could put all kinds of things through one. Man... I'm going to have to check 'em out at the antique store.

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    4. I bought an old wooden wringer off of craigs list because I read somewhere that the old wooden wringer was best for pressing and just did it on top of a 5 gallon pail. I'll have to look and see if I took pics, what is your email?

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    5. Canoearoo: click on the "Contact David the Good" link just beneath the newsletter sign-up button on the top right. I'd love to post pics if you have them.

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  9. This is cool. My grandfather did this for 50 years with his brothers and sold in syrup in cans. Used purple cane, which is hard to find these days.

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  10. This is great! My partner just chopped down a little patch of sugarcane I had planted in a bad spot. I think I may give this a try; perhaps with a pressure cooker to speed up the process… Have you tried a pressure cooker for Step 4.

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