So, these grow all over the place, and few people notice them, let alone go through the trouble (seriously, a lot of work) to harvest and process them into something useful. Elderberries!
warning: uncooked berries and other parts of the plant are considered poisonous!
This is true though, with all medicines; a little is beneficial, but too much, or the wrong part of the plant, and it is poison. Elderberry has quercetin, vitamin C, and is beneficial to the immune and respiratory system. This is why its in so many herbal and other “natural” supplements for the flu and cold season.
During my time working in health food and supplement stores, I often saw products boasting “real elderberries!”
I remember even using some lozenges with elderberry when I was sick, as well as the popular and effective “sambucus” syrups. Sambuca is another word for elderberry, I think its more specific to the healing use of the plant. Some people call them “flu shots!” I guess ’cause you drink a shot-glass full (maybe with some delicious brandy or something?)
So, we decided, let’s make our own because its a long winter ahead, there’s a bounty of free elderberries around, and by controlling the process and the ingredients, we ensure our medicinal syrup is of an effective concentration, with only whole, ripe berries, and no “funky stuff” as fillers/thickeners. We used honey to make it more syrup-like.
So, it was a long, and arduous process. Here are the steps:
1. Harvest some fresh, ripe berries. Make sure they’re black elderberries. We harvested our when they had a little bit of a white powder on the outside. It was pretty close to the end of the season. Remember to wear clothes that are tear-resistant, and don’t underestimate the elderberry bush! They seem to LOVE growing on slopes, with lots of undergrowth, possible full of thorns and other jagged sticks and things. As you approach these beautiful clumps of berries, they seem to be just in front of you, shoulder-height, and almost calling out your name… then you get closer, and suddenly they’re ten feet over your head and you’ve slid down a steep slope, as have your hopes of this being easy…
Try to leave the clumps together, don’t pick them off the stems yet. Right now, you’re just cutting off the clumps and tossing them in a bucket, possibly all day. No one said it was going to be easy. We found it really effective to bring a telescoping pruner, which at its very peak would reach most of the berry-clumps. Then someone below would position themselves to catch it as it fell. Leave what you can’t get and move on to another bush. Plus, its not very care-taker-like to strip the plant of every last berry.
2. With a fork, and diligence, remove all the berries from the stems. Take your time, invite some friends over, and have some adult drinks because you’re going to be at this for a while. The time you take here to ensure all the branches and twigs are removed will be well worth it; the berry is the medicinal part first off, and secondly, you are reducing the bitterness by processing only the berry. Just fork ’em into some huge bowls. Process all the berries off the stems before moving on. You’ll be using every bowl and pot in your kitchen so its important to completely resolve one step before initiating the next one….
(sorry I don’t have any pics of this. Next year for sure!) Here is a site I found with some good pictures of elderberry processing. They seem to be using a comb instead of a fork; I’m rather aggressive, so I go for a metal processing tool.
3. Wash/float the berries to remove dirt, bees, ants, and whatever other naturalia might be lingering in the berries. Yeah, a colander works well for this. We will be boiling this hot mess, so don’t fuss with it too long.
4. Now comes the first boil! This is the part where you dig out every pot from every neglected, dusty corner of your kitchen. Kind of spread them out so there’s just a couple inches in the pot to start with, as you will be mashing them. You’ll need some kind of hand-masher for this, like the one for makin’ taters. Of course, the finer the masher, the better for this, as the berries are smaller than peas. Boil, and mash. You’re trying to get the juice out, get everything seperated, as well as kind of sterlizing the whole thing.
5. Strain out the skins and seeds, and prepare for reducing. (As in, hours of continued simmering…) We found that two jelly bags work best. While you’re squeezin’ and strainin’, your friend can be washing out the spare jelly bag, and you can keep the line going. Get as much juice out as you can, and there’s nothing wrong with straining twice! The skins and seeds can give you a tummy-ache or diarrhea (so I’ve heard; I have a strong stomach but I’ve also never just eaten down a bunch of elderberries whole…). I am not sure if it is necessary to strain out the skins and seeds, but I find it makes a better syrup! We used a small amount of water (like a few cups) to help rinse out some of the juice and get more of the medicinal parts of it into what we will be making into syrup. Oh, its messy.
6. Boil, boil, boil… that juice! We are trying to reduce! it! Stir, stir, stir. There’s nothing wrong with several hours of reducing, as it is concentrating the syrup. This will cook out all the water. Low and slow on this one, folks. It took us two full days from harvest to canning, but I assure you, when you drink some of this at the first sign of a cold, and then don’t get sick… well, you’ll feel like it was well worth it.
7. Thicken and sweeten. Stir in about 1/2 a cup of agave per gallon of concentrated elderberry juice. And then add crap-tons of honey! The agave is to sweeten it extra, as this syrup is very bitter. I forgot to mention it kind of smells like stomach acid (vomit) but just go with it… not everything can be sweet-smelling and tasty, especially not if its good for you….
I think we used at least two cups of honey to about a gallon and a half of syrup. Kind of feel it out. It will make the juice a lot thicker once it cools down, though you will be able to notice a discernible thickening once you’ve added “enough” honey. The reducing also helps it to thicken. Even once its cooled down, its still way less viscous than honey, about the consistency of maple syrup (the real stuff.)
8. Okay, now you can it! We used little pint jars so we can just open a little at a time. Ladle hot syrup into sterilized jars leaving 1/4″ headspace. Wipe rims clean, screw on the sterilized lids. Process for 10 minutes in water bath canner (add 1 minute for every 1,000 feet above sea level).