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!
Foraging For Wild Elderberries
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.
Harvesting and Processing Elderberries
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.
An Exquisite Jelly From a Special Fruit
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.
Other Wild Food Favorites
Do not double this recipe, or it won't set right. Make one batch at a time.
If you're using a different brand of pectin than one recommended in the recipe, follow the same ratios on the package instructions for making blackberry jelly.
3 to 4 pounds ripe elderberries
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 (1.75-ounce) package MCP or SureJell pectin (see recipe note)
4 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon butter
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.
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 pounds of de-stemmed elderberries (about 8 to 10 cups).
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.
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 1 hour.
Prepare jars for canning:
You'll need 5 to 6 (8-ounce) canning jars and lids.
Put a steaming rack at the bottom of a large, tall pot. Add the jars and fill the pot with enough water to cover the jars with 1 to 2 inches of water. Once the water reaches a full rolling boil, boil the jars for 10 minutes to sterilize them.
Wash the lids in hot, soapy water.
Measure out the juice:
Measure out the strained juice. You will need 3 cups of juice to make one batch of jelly if using MCP or SureJell pectin.
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.
Any amount more than that you can reserve for making syrup, or add to another batch for jelly.
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.
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.
The reason we add a small amount of butter is that it helps keep the mixture from boiling up as high.
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.
Secure canning jars with lids:
Wipe the rims with a damp paper towel. Place lids on jars and rings to secure.
Process the jars in a water bath for 5 minutes.
Remove from the water bath and let cool. As the jelly cools you should hear a popping sound as the lids seal.
Once you open a jar, it can last for several months in the refrigerator
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 80 to 100|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 0g||0%|
|Saturated Fat 0g||0%|
|Total Carbohydrate 13g||5%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||5%|
|Total Sugars 9g|
|Vitamin C 7mg||33%|
|*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.|