If you are of a certain age, your primary, and perhaps only, reference to elderberries is likely an Elton John song, a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or if older perhaps a Cary Grant film. So it was much to my surprise to learn from my friend Hank that elderberries grow wild all along the American River, less than half a mile from my home. We moved to Sacramento when I was nine; I have spent countless summers catching minnows and picking blackberries at the river. I can’t believe these elderberries have been there the whole time, right in front of me. Of course when I saw Hank’s photos I recognized them (those are edible?!) and as soon as I could, wrangled Garrett into joining me for elderberry picking and jelly making.
Garrett has a characteristically hilarious account of our elderberry picking adventure. Picking them was a challenge, given the star thistles poking through our jeans, constant vigilance for ticks (I really don’t like those) and rattlesnakes (have had a couple close encounters with those at the river). Speaking of rattlers, Garrett is the only person I know personally who has actually been bitten by one, ask him about it. The good news is that there are plenty of elderberry shrubs right alongside various paths and trails around the river, so you don’t have to do much bushwhacking to get to them. In most parts of the country they ripen in late summer; here in Sacramento they begin to ripen in early July and then new clusters ripen all summer.
One of the many elderberry shrubs growing along the American River
If you do go picking, wear long sleeve shirt, a hat, and jeans. Make sure you bring a plastic bag, otherwise juice from the fragile berries that will invariably get crushed will seep through and stain your clothes. Bring clippers.
In Northern California, the variety of elderberry we get here often has a white blush covering the ripe blue/black berries. You’ll want to cut the cluster from its base. Do not process the leaves or stems, as they may contain problematic alkaloids.
The truly time consuming part of processing elderberries is the stripping of the berries from their stems, after they’ve been thoroughly rinsed. It took me about 10 minutes to pick 4 pounds of berries on my last foray, and about 1 1/2 hours to de-stem them.
So, what do they taste like? A lot like blackberries, though they do have a distinctive flavor, and unless very ripe, they are a bit tart. They make a jelly much like concord grape jelly, though not as cloying. After Garrett and I made a couple batches and swore never to bother again because of the work de-stemming, I went out again on my own to pick more. Why? Because we love the way the jelly turned out. Absolutely delicious. I’ve been making peanut butter elderberry jelly sandwiches for lunch for all week long.
What follows is a recipe for the jelly, but you can also make elderberry syrup by making juice, adding sugar, and boiling it down, or elderberry liqueur. Or you can make wine from the berries. I’ve taken plain elderberries, sprinkled sugar on them, and added them to my breakfast cereal like blueberries. According to some studies, elderberries are naturally anti-viral, so the syrup or jelly is good to eat when you are trying to recover from a cold or flu.
Do not double this recipe. Make one batch at a time.
- 3-4 lbs ripe (not green) elderberries (after de-stemming)
- 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 packet MCP pectin*
- 4 1/2 cups white granulated sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon butter
*If using a different brand of pectin, follow ratios on package instructions for making blackberry jelly.
1 Rinse elderberry clusters thoroughly. Working over a large bowl, work on one small cluster at a time, gently raking your fingers across the clusters to dislodge the berries from the stems. Only use berries that are completely blue or black. Do not use green berries or partially green berries as they are not ripe. For each batch of jelly, collect 3 lbs of de-stemmed elderberries. Once de-stemmed, rinse again.
2 Place berries in a large pot and crush with a potato masher to release some of the juices. Turn the heat to medium and continue to crush as the mixture heats up to a boil. Once it reaches a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and let it simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat.
3 Place a large fine-mesh sieve, or 4 layers of cheesecloth, over a pot. Slowly transfer the mashed berries and juice over the sieve to strain the juice out into the pot. Let strain for several hours.
4 Prepare jars for canning. You'll need 5-6 8-ounce canning jars and lids. Rinse out the jars and place on a baking sheet, top up, in the oven. Heat for 10 minutes at 200°F to sterilize the jars. To sterilize the lids, bring a kettle of a couple cups of water to a boil. Place lids in a shallow bowl and pour the boiling water over them.
5 Measure out the juice. You will need 3 cups of juice to make one batch of jelly if using MCP pectin, 3 3/4 cups of juice if using SureJell pectin**. Any amount more than that you can reserve for making syrup, or add to another batch for jelly. Place 3 cups of juice into a large, wide pot (8-quart). Add the lemon juice and pectin.
6 Bring to a boil. Add 4 1/2 cups sugar and 1/4 teaspoon of butter. Stir with a wooden spoon. Bring to a boil again. Watch the pot as the mixture will foam up considerably. As soon as the mixture reaches a rolling boil that you cannot diminish by stirring, watch the clock. At exactly 2 minutes, remove from heat and pour mixture into canning jars to 1/4-inch of headspace from the rim.
7 Wipe rims with a damp paper towel. Place lids on jars and rings to secure. If you want, to ensure a good seal and to protect against mold (any potentially harmful bacteria will already be destroyed by the sugar concentration of the jelly), you can process the jars in a water bath for 5 minutes. To do so, put a steaming rack at the bottom of a large, tall pot. Fill the pot halfway with water (enough to cover jars with an inch or two of water when in the pot), bring to a boil, gently place the jars in the pot (helps to use a jar lifter, tongs, or be wearing rubber gloves), boil for 5 minutes, and remove.
Let cool. As the jelly cools you should hear a popping sound as the lids seal.
**Note these are the guidelines from the pectin box instructions. I found that even half as much pectin will cause the jelly to set, though perhaps not as firm as the whole amount.