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 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!
Picking them can be a challenge, given the star thistles that poke through your jeans, constant vigilance for ticks (I really don’t like those) and rattlesnakes (have had a couple close encounters with those at the river).
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.
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. Note that raw elderberries should not be eaten, as they too have some of those problematic alkaloids, though not to the extent of the stems.
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, and absolutely delicious. I’ve been making peanut butter elderberry jelly sandwiches for lunch for all week long.
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.
Elderberry Jelly Recipe
Do not double this recipe. Make one batch at a time.
- 3-4 lbs ripe elderberries
- 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 packet MCP or SureJell 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.
- 5 to 7 Half-pint canning jars
1 Rinse the elderberry clusters: Rinse elderberry clusters thoroughly. I find the easiest way to do this is to put them in the basin of my kitchen sink, and fill it up with water.
If you've picked your own elderberries, often there are little squash bugs or spiders that will come to the surface, so keep an eye out for them.
2 Strip the elderberries from their stems: Working over a large bowl, work on one small cluster at a time, gently raking your fingers or the tines of a fork across the clusters to dislodge the berries from the stems.
Use mostly berries that are completely blue or black. A few underripe green berries are fine; they have more pectin and including them will help the jelly set.
For each batch of jelly, collect 3 lbs of de-stemmed elderberries (about 8 to 10 cups).
3 Put the elderberries in a pot and bring to a simmer: 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 the berries and their juices reach a boil, reduce the heat to low and let the berries simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat.
4 Strain the juice from the elderberries: 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 an hour.
5 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.
6 Measure out the juice: You will need 3 cups of juice to make one batch of jelly if using MCP or SureJell pectin.**
Any amount more than that you can reserve for making syrup, or add to another batch for jelly.
7 Add elderberry juice, lemon juice, pectin to a large pot, bring to a boil: Place 3 cups of juice into a large, high sided, wide pot (8-quart). Add the lemon juice and pectin. Bring to a boil on high heat.
8 Add sugar, butter, bring to a boil again: 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. You may need to lower the heat a bit to keep the foam from boiling over the pot.
By the way, the reason we add a small amount of butter is that it helps keep the mixture from boiling up as high.
9 Boil the mixture, then pour into canning jars: 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.
10 Secure canning jars with lids: 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 sometimes even half as much pectin will cause the jelly to set, though perhaps not as firm as the whole amount.
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