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  • Writer's pictureKatheryn

An Old Fashioned Sugar Cane Boil

Updated: Jan 18, 2022

2021 brought with it our very first annual sugar cane boil here on Sugar Hill Homestead. It was a small quiet celebration with just our immediate family in December. Our plan for future cane boils is to invite family, friends, and neighbors to join in the merriment and tradition of cane boils. I'm already looking forward to hosting next years cane boil now that we have most of the kinks worked out.

A sugar cane boil is exactly what it sounds like, its a day where we harvest sugar cane and boil the juice to make cane syrup. It's a heap of hard work, that results in what may seem like a very little bit of syrup. The work begins early, cutting cane then running it through the cane press, and ends late in the kitchen constantly stirring and skimming syrup. Having said that its a tremendously fun, messy, and entirely gratifying experience that I look forward to sharing.

The cane boil begins with harvesting the sugar cane stocks. Chris and I did the bulk of the harvesting ourselves with occasional bursts of enthusiastic help from our kids. We used a pair of loppers to harvest the canes, leaving any that were too small so they can grow for next years harvest. I have seen most people use a machete to do their harvesting, but with two little ones running around eager to help, the loppers were definitely the safer option.

While Chris did the cutting, I stripped the cane of its leaves and loaded the prepped canes into the bed of our truck. I highly recommend wearing gloves when handling the leaves on the canes as they can leave tiny splinters much like little cactus needles in your hands if you don't. After stripping the first few canes, the kids and I were inside searching for duct tape to pull the splinters out of our hands. We learned pretty quick to wear gloves.

Cutting, stripping, and loading took most the morning. We had a quick lunch break before we got to move on to the fun part, trying out our sugar cane press for the first time. We searched a little over three years for a working antique sugar cane press. The press we found is a Columbus Iron Works Company No. 14. It's an old fashioned cane press that would traditionally be turned by a mule or donkey as someone fed the cane through the drums. Chris volunteered to be the mule (I'm sure I didn't make any comparisons at all) while the kids and I fed the cane through the press.

We collected the juice in a 5 gallon bucket that sat under the spout coming off the press. Pressing the cane went pretty quickly, and this year yielded about 7 gallons of juice. Once enough juice accumulated I brought it into the kitchen to begin the actual boil. I began by straining the juice through muslin to filter out some of the larger bits of dirt and debris. I boiled the juice down in a large stock pot stirring occasionally and skimming the scum as it formed on top.

In the future we'll do our boils in a large cast iron kettle. This year we didn't have the structure built for it, so I boiled the juice in batches. Each batch took about 3 hours to reach a syrupy consistency ready to put in jars. As this was my first time boiling cane syrup, I just went with my gut and experience making jams and jellies to tell me when it was ready. My first batch came off too soon and separated into two layers as the syrup cooled. A thicker syrupy layer on the bottom and a more juice like layer at the top. I just threw all the syrup back in the pot and let it boil as I stirred for another 45 minutes or so until it became a bit thicker and darker in color.

The end product was a lovely glossy syrup the color of a strongly brewed pitcher of sweet southern tea. I strained the hot syrup through muslin once more to catch some of the finer bits of silt for a clearer syrup. The 7 gallons of juice yielded about 14 half pint jars of syrup.

My mind is already spinning with all the recipes we can use our cane syrup in. But I think first, I'll keep it simple and make some of my homemade biscuits served with a pat of butter and a drizzle cane syrup.

Until then, sweet homesteading,

Katheryn Williams

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