With no cooking—just a little bit of time—this two ingredient recipe transforms the humble black elderberry into a rich, flavorful syrup that will brighten up anything from drinks to pancakes to roast duck. The intense berry taste will have you wanting to make it again and again!
Elevate the Humble Elderberry
For most, the word “berries” evokes the go-tos: blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and maybe blackberries. However, in North America alone there are hundreds of species of berries, most of which have never seen the light of the misty refrigerated grocery shelf. Why is this? Well, berries themselves are finicky things. They bruise easily, or have a very short shelf life. And some berries, native to only certain regions of the country, just don’t enjoy awareness and aren’t in wide demand.
And for many home cooks, elderberries aren’t even an afterthought. Instead, they’re relegated to the cold and flu section of the grocery store, in a bottled form alongside cough medicine, or in a hard candy-like form promising to boost your immune system. It’s true that elderberries have been used medicinally for thousands of years, but their culinary value should not be overlooked: it’s an exciting new world of berry flavor like you’ve never tasted before.
Where to Find Elderberries
First, where to get your elderberries? If your USDA hardiness zone is 3-8, congrats! Elderberries are more likely to grow here than in warmer zones, or very cold zones. If you’d like to venture out to forage your own, take a look at Simply Recipes’ foraging guide for elderberries.
Otherwise, there are a few online sources for fresh and frozen elderberries such as Foraged Market and Northwest Wild Foods. I use black elderberries here (either American or European is fine), and you can also use blue elderberries if those are available to you. Red elderberries have a reputation for toxic seeds, though Native Americans used them in the Pacific Northwest for centuries. However, the berries also have a reputation for being bitter, so we don’t recommend them. If you have any experience or insights with them, please share in the comments.
Safe Handling of Elderberries
Searching the internet, you’re very likely to encounter recipes for cooked elderberry syrup, with warnings that the berries must be cooked to remove the toxins. To be clear, yes: the leaves and stems of the plant should not be consumed, and they are not safe to eat. But you don’t want that in your syrup anyways!
I source my elderberries from Northwest Wild Foods, who do an extremely excellent job of keeping most stems out of the package (I get them shipped flash frozen and have used those to test this recipe). But please, do not panic if a few tiny pieces make it into the final batch, as they will have no ill effect on you.
It’s true that the raw berries themselves need to go through a transformation—whether through cooking or fermentation—so that they are suitable for digestion. And even after that process is completed, it’s not advisable to eat more than a spoonful of the cooked or fermented elderberries a day, as they can cause digestive problems, and for some people there can be an increased risk of an allergic reaction.
For the Best Flavor, Ferment, Don’t Cook
Now, while you can either cook or ferment the berries, fermentation produces the best, richest tasting syrup of the two. The taste is sweet-tart with a wine-like finish. While you use quite a lot of sugar to aid in the fermentation, the sweetness is not cloying, and that sugar is needed to feed the naturally occurring yeast on the elderberries as they ferment. In contrast, cooking the berries will give them a more muted, “cooked” taste, and will drastically reduce the brightness of the elderberry.
Ways to Use Fermented Elderberry Syrup
Elderberry syrup is super versatile and will brighten any drink or food it’s added to. Here are a few of my favorite ways to use it.
- A teaspoon mixed with sparkling water for a nonalcoholic drink
- Substitute the kir liqueur with elderberry syrup for a more berry intense Kir Royale cocktail
- Drizzle the syrup over pancakes, waffles, crepes
- A little drizzle on vanilla ice cream or yogurt
- You can go savory as well, with some spooned over pan-roasted duck or a turkey breast
Tips and Tricks
- Depending on a variety of factors, your fermentation may be slow to start. The key to catching the beginnings of fermentation is to look for tiny bubbles that start to appear around the edges of the liquid. These will appear first, and then slightly larger bubbles will appear, and you’ll notice bubbles moving up through the liquid when it really gets going.
- You can use either organic granulated sugar or regular white sugar. Stay away from powdered sugars or extra fine sugars that might have anti-caking agents in them.
- Don’t discard the steeped elderberries when you’re done! These can be kept refrigerated for several months and used sparingly as well to add a bit of berry crunch atop sweet and savory foods.
- You can freeze the syrup into smaller portions in silicone ice cube trays. Freezing will prolong the life of the syrup up to 1 year.
More Fermentation Projects
Fermented Elderberry Syrup
Fermentation time is 2 weeks.
This recipe was inspired by Marie Viljoen's "Forage, Harvest, Feast”, but the sugar has been reduced here.
Elderberries are medicinal plants, and as such, should be consumed in moderation. It’s not advisable to eat more than a spoonful of the cooked or fermented elderberries a day, as they can cause digestive problems.
This recipe will not work with dried elderberries; use only fresh or frozen. Pick out all of the steams and leaves, using the tips here.
Since the recipe uses weight to measure out how much sugar and elderberries to use, this can easily be scaled. Less than a pound and a half of elderberries? Weigh them out and weigh out the corresponding amount of sugar, and vice versa if you need to! My ratio by weight is 1:1, which takes all the guesswork out of making this syrup.
450 grams black elderberries, from 1-1/2 pounds frozen elderberries (if frozen, rinse and then thaw overnight in the fridge)
450 grams (2 cups plus scant 1/4 cup) sugar
- 2-quart glass jar
- Fine mesh strainer
Prep the elderberries:
If using frozen elderberries, rinse them with cool water and then place them in a fine mesh strainer suspended over a bowl so that they are not sitting in any liquid as they thaw. Place in the refrigerator and let thaw overnight.
Combine the elderberries and sugar:
The next day, in a large (2 quart) clean, sterilized jar, alternate layers of sugar and berries, starting with the sugar (this helps ensure an even distribution of the two ingredients). Loosely close the lid (if a screw cap, do not tighten all the way; if a rubber ring style closure, remove the rubber ring and close the lid without securing). Shake the jar to coat the berries in sugar. Place in a cool, dark place like the pantry.
It may seem like a lot of sugar, but it’s needed to boost the fermentation.
Monitor the progress:
On the following day, give the jar a shake to help move more of the sugar around. You may or may not see any juices from the berries emerging today.
On days 3 through 5, there should be a substantial amount of liquid being drawn out of the berries. You might start to see fermentation (see note about how to tell if your syrup is fermenting in the headnotes and what to do if it’s not) by day 4.
If you do not notice any fermentation bubbles after 4-5 days, a spoonful of yogurt whey or liquid from another unpasteurized fermented beverage should help kickstart the fermentation.
Once the fermentation has started, you can open the container and gently stir the mixture as some sugar may have settled at the bottom. The mixture should be gently bubbling after a week to a week and a half.
Check on the jar every day as it ferments.
If you see a tiny patch of white mold on one of the berries on the surface, simply spoon it off, discard, and continue fermentation in the refrigerator.
At the two week mark (as long as your mixture has been bubbling for at least a week, if not, wait another week until doing this step), strain the berries from the liquid. My syrup yielded about 1 1/2 cups; your yield may vary.
You may wind up with some undissolved sugar in the bottom of your jar. Simply discard it.
Bottle and store:
Transfer the syrup to an airtight bottle, like a swing top, and store in the refrigerator. Berries can be transferred to an airtight container and also stored in the refrigerator. Both will last at least 3 months, or 1 year if frozen.
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The pressure may build up in your sealed, refrigerated bottle over time if you don’t open it up for a few weeks. It’s no big deal, but if you open the bottle and get a whoosh of air, know that it’s totally fine.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 0g||0%|
|Saturated Fat 0g||0%|
|Total Carbohydrate 7g||3%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||2%|
|Total Sugars 6g|
|Vitamin C 2mg||11%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|