Exploring Elderberry

Bright, bittersweet, alluring berry taste for a variety of uses.

Exploring Elderberry

Note: The below is also published in the Fall 2016 edition of Edible East Bay

Harvesting elderberries.

Harvesting elderberries.

The culinary and medical applications of both elderflowers and berries are many, which has led to the plant’s frequent appearance in world mythologies. Among pagan traditions, the elder tree is attributed with powers from protection and healing to vivid dreams and removal of negative spells.  It is fun to use both harvests from the tree (flowers and berries) in a dish, such as elder almond pound cake. See previous post, Elderflower Power for more information about processing elderflower and the plant's uses in general. 

Autumn’s elderberries—the dark and pungent counterpart to the sweetly fragrant blossoms—offer flavor that varies from tree to tree. At its best, the berry is juicy and bittersweet, similar to a blueberry, but smaller and more acerbic. At its worst, the bitter flavor shines through and the texture can be coarse and dry.

Processing the berries by cooking or drying will render them safe and improve the flavor. Elderberries are often cooked down into a cordial syrup, made into elderberry jam or wine, baked into pies and cakes, or dried and used as you would use dried currants. Dried berries can also be rehydrated by simmering with water and sugar for a more “stewed” flavor.

On Foraging: The elder plant found in Northern California (and most of the Western United States) is Sambucus cerulea, also known as blue elder for it's dark-blue berries. This shrub, which can grow to 30 feet high, has reddish bark and pinnate leaves that grow opposite each other. Like elder plants everywhere, it prefers warm, damp environments, so look near flowing water inland from the foggy coast. If you noted where you found elderflowers in early summer—you can return now through September (in our region) for the berries.

Dark blue elderberries with whitish bloom.

Dark blue elderberries with whitish bloom.

The ripe berries are deep blue with a whitish bloom. They hang in tightly packed grape-like clusters. It is very important to note that there is also a red species of elderberry that is poisonous. When you are collecting the berries, be sure to take only the dark blue ones.

To harvest, simply snap off the entire cluster of fruit—by far, much easier than a blackberry harvest! Sort the berries by submerging in water and removing the individual berries from the stems as you would a cluster of grapes. Shriveled berries along with twigs and any insects will then float to the surface and can be removed. As in harvesting elderflowers, you want to remove as much of the stem as possible, as the toxins are more concentrated in the stem than in the berries. Berries can then be used immediately or frozen or dried for later use.

Warning: It is extremely important to understand that elderberries (and elderflowers) are potentially toxic and must be processed before consumption. A few berries or flowers may be fine in small amounts (if, say, you taste a small handful of berries or use the flowers as a garnish), but do NOT ingest significant quantities of any part of the elder tree in raw form. You need to cook or dry them before consumption.

Sweeten to taste and use in desserts, such as over ice cream or medicinally.

Sweeten to taste and use in desserts, such as over ice cream or medicinally.

Spiced Elderberry Cordial

Unlike elderflower cordial, elderberry cordial is a stronger, thicker syrup containing alcohol that is used in both medicinal and culinary applications. The syrup is sometimes taken regularly for cold and flu prevention (there is limited peer-reviewed, but much anecdotal evidence suggesting the berries enhance immune response), to top pancakes, or, as I particularly enjoy, with champagne for an “elderberry kir royale”. Feel free to experiment with the spice blend, add other ingredients such as citrus peel and herbs, or keep it simple with just the berries. 

  • 1 1/4 cups dried elderberries or 2 cups fresh

  • 1 cinnamon stick, crushed

  • 1 star anise

  • About 3 cups brandy

  • Honey, to taste (maple syrup or other sweetener can be substituted for honey)

Place elderberries, cinnamon, and star anise into a clean quart-sized glass jar. Add brandy to fill the jar and cover with a lid. Label the jar with contents and the date. Set aside in a cool, dark place for 3 to 4 weeks.

Strain cordial through cheesecloth over a large bowl. Squeeze contents of cheesecloth to release remaining liquid into the bowl then discard solids.

Add about 1/2 cup sweetener, such as honey, for every 1 cup liquid (or to taste). Stir to dissolve. Using a funnel, pour cordial into a clean bottle (or several clean bottles) and seal with cap or cork. A cordial using fresh

A cordial made with fresh elderberries will last about a year, whereas a cordial made with dried berries will last for 2-3 years and improve with age. Store in a cool, dark place and use as a cold and flu preventative, over desserts, or in beverages.

Elderberry Jam

A great way to quickly preserve the flavor of elderberries for later use on toast or in dessert applications. Makes 4 half-pint jars.

  • 4 cups fresh elderberries
  • 3 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice

Sterilize 4 half-pint Mason jars.

Bring ingredients to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Continue boiling, stirring occasionally, until mixture reaches 220° or jam falls in a “sheet” when spoon is removed, about 20 minutes.

 Pour evenly into jars and seal.

 Elderberry Buckwheat Tart

Nutty buckwheat pairs perfectly with the tartly sweet berries balanced by a bright kick of ginger. Serves 8.

  • 9 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided, plus more for greasing pan
  • ½ cup buckwheat flour
  • ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons gluten-free flour blend (or all-purpose flour)
  • ⅓ cup plus ½ cup granulated sugar, divided
  • ¾ teaspoon salt, divided
  • 2–3 tablespoons cold milk or water
  • 3 cups fresh elderberries
  • 1/3 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons fresh grated ginger
  • 2-3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice

Lightly grease the bottom and sides of an 8-inch or 9-inch tart pan. Set aside.

Mix flours, 1/3 cup sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and cut in 7 tablespoons butter. With pastry blender, fork, or hands, mix butter into flour mixture until the dough resembles small peas. Sprinkle in milk or water by the teaspoon and blend until dough sticks together when pressed, but is still crumbly.

Press dough into and up sides of pan, chill for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350°and bake for 15 minutes until golden-brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

While tart shell is cooling, add elderberries, remaining ½ cup granulated sugar, brown sugar, remaining ¼ teaspoon salt, and ginger to a large pot and heat on medium-high. Blend cornstarch with 1 tablespoon water to create a slurry, and then add to the elderberry mixture, stirring to dissolve slurry and sugars.

Bring to simmer and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until mixture thickens, about 5 minutes. Add another tablespoon of water-thinned cornstarch if needed to get mixture to thicken.

Turn off heat, stir in lemon juice, and pour elderberry mixture into cooled tart shell. Dot with remaining 2 tablespoons butter and bake for 40 minutes until set.

Serve warm or at room temperature, ideally with vanilla ice cream.

Nutty, bittersweet, and special.

Nutty, bittersweet, and special.