Harvesting Elderberries: Picking, Preserving & Recipes (2024)

Harvesting Elderberries: Picking, Preserving & Recipes | Foraging tips & handy hints for picking & preserving elderberries with plenty of recipe ideas!

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The short season for picking and preserving elderberries means we don’t have long to get stuck in. Once the elderberries are almost black and hanging heavily on their stems, they won’t be around for long after the local bird population make their move.

Birds are clever creatures with a canny sense for ripe fruit and here at the Kitchen Shed I’d decided to wait one extra day for the elderberries to ripen just a little more. Next day when I went out with my scissors and basket almost half the fruit had disappeared !

Full of antioxidants to aid healthy cell production and packed with Vitamin C, elderberries have all the qualities of a superfood and they’re free !
There’s an abundance of elderberries out there ready to be picked and preserved and the beauty of elderberries is that you don’t need to live in the countryside to get a good harvest – you’ll find elderberries in parks, gardens and alongside footpaths in the city too.

Elderberries are best not eaten raw as they can give some people a bad tum and if you’ve ever eaten one straight from the bush you’ll know they are rather tart. Tasting a bit like a blackberry but more sour and with a slightly earthy taste, elderberries are delicious in wine, fruit vinegars, jellies and baking to add an extra dimension to both sweet and savoury dishes.

Here at the Kitchen Shed, we love our Sweet Elderberry Vinegar drizzled over ice cream, mixed with a good rape seed oil for a delicious salad dressing (even better than balsamic) or even a spoonful adding a tasty boost to a gravy.

I’d better stop extolling the virtues of the humble elderberry and get down to the purpose of this post and give you information on how to pick and preserve them.

Harvesting Elderberries: Picking

  • The leaves and stems of the elderberry are toxic so discard them after picking.
  • Elderberries need to be fully ripe as the unripe berries can cause tummy upsets so make sure you pick the berries when they are almost black, a few red ones won’t matter but you definitely want to discard the green ones.
  • You can feel the difference in the berries anyway once you start stripping them from the stems, the ripe berries are soft and juicy and unripe are hard as bullets.
  • Choose a tree that is free from pollution, in the city you’re more likely to have the problem of roadside exhaust fumes and in the countryside insecticide spraying.
  • Another tip is not too pick lower than a labradoodle can raise its back leg 🙂
  • Take a pair of scissors with you along with a plastic bag, the berries are rather juicy and can easily stain your clothes.
  • Pick on a warm sunny day otherwise your fruit will have added water and they won’t be as tasty.
  • Always leave some for the birds and other foragers.

Clean your elderberries:

The first job you need to do is to give them a thorough wash, this is far easier done before you strip the berries from the stems. You tend to find all sorts of creepy crawlies on the berries from spiders to ants.

The easiest way to wash them is to fill a large bowl with water and add the elderberries swishing them around to dispel any unwanted debris or insects which usually rise to the surface so you can skim them off. Sometimes a second rinse is required depending on the state of your elderberries.

Strip the berries:
  • Stripping the berries can be a messy job – if you don’t fancy yourself with purple fingers you might want to use food grade gloves.
  • Pick off and discard any unripe fruit, leaving the purple (ideally almost black) berries on the stems.
  • At this point you can open freeze your bunches of berries for later use – once frozen the berries come off the stems easily.
  • Whether fresh or frozen, a fork makes light work of stripping the berries from the stems just as you would with redcurrants.
    OH and I did a comparison between using fingers and forks to strip the berries but there really wasn’t much difference time wise or in effort, so it’s a case of doing whichever you find easiest.

Harvesting Elderberries: Preserving

Elderberries have a fairly short shelf life so once picked it’s best to get them preserved as quickly as you can.

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Place the cleaned fully ripe berries still on their stems on trays and open freeze them for a couple of hours before transferring them to a container or freezer bag.

Freezing the berries is a really easy way to deal with your berries, particularly if you’re pushed for time. The berries are much easier to strip off the stems when the fruit is brittle, in fact you’ll find the berries start dropping off the stems when you place the open frozen berries into a container.

I would recommend only large juicy ripe elderberries for freezing, smaller less ripe fruit tend to stay with their stems.

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How to dry elderberries:

In the UK, the temperate climate means the best way to dry elderberries is to use a dehydrator – I have tried drying fruit in a low oven with the door open but the results were inconsistent.

A dehydrator uses less electricity than an oven and these days there are plenty of good value dehydrators on the market.

OH bought my Excalibur years ago when we first came to France and from memory the supplier was a UK company who imported the Excaliburs from the US and then converted the electrics.

My Excalibur is in use throughout the year and I wouldn’t be without it.

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Dehydrator times and temperature:

  • Place your elderberries on trays and place them in your dehydrator at 135 ℃ / 250 ℉ for approximately 10 hours, turning the trays around half way through drying.
  • Your berries want to be thoroughly dried out to ensure they keep. Going to the trouble of drying fruit or vegetables only to find they’ve grown a fur coat when you come to use them is very disheartening.
  • Store your dried fruit in an airtight container, I like to use a glass Le Parfait or Kilner jar.
  • Rehydrate before use or use like currants in your favourite bakes.

Harvesting Elderberries: Recipes

Elderberry Jelly with Port – this fruity seedless jam is delicious on toast or a scone and is equally good with cooked or cold meats as it pairs perfectly with beef, pork, lamb and poultry. Simply add the jelly to your gravy or jus as you would when using redcurrant jelly.

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Try myElderberry Tart

Tart aux Myrtilles is the inspiration for my Elderberry Tart. I’ve used a rich butter pastry and used a small amount of custard flavoured with Creme de Cassis as a base for the elderberries for my version of this much loved tart. It truly is delicious.

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Or try making some Sweet Elderberry Vinegar

Sweet Elderberry Vinegar is a tasty alternative to Balsamic and makes the most delicious salad dressing. Try drizzling your Elderberry Vinegar over ice cream or add it to sparkling water and ice for a refreshing summer drink. The vinegar is so versatile it even doubles up as a cold and flu remedy, simply add hot water to a tablespoon of Elderberry Vinegar and stir.

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Harvesting Elderberries: Picking, Preserving & Recipes (2024)


What to do with elderberries after picking? ›

Storage tips: Elderberries should not be stored in containers at room temperature for more than 2-4 hours as this can cause them to spoil. They should generally be frozen or cooked immediately after picking them.

How do you preserve fresh elderberries? ›

Elderberries can be frozen either before or after destemming, and freezing can even be a part of the destemming process itself, since the firmer, frozen berries can better withstand destemming manipulations. To freeze elderberries prior to destemming, lay cymes on a tray or wide bin and place in the freezer.

Is it better to freeze or dry elderberries? ›

If you've got an abundance of elderberries, freezing is a great way to preserve them for future use (or to stockpile them until you have enough for a recipe). It is also best to freeze elderberries before trying to de-stem them even if you plan to use them right away as it makes the process much easier.

How long do you need to cook elderberries to be safe? ›

Pick though the dried berries to remove any sticks or unripe berries before you cook them. Then follow the recipe instructions. The berries have to be cooked for at least 45 minutes (without a cover) to ensure the deactivation of the toxin that can result in adverse gastrointestinal symptoms.

How do you remove cyanide from elderberries? ›

To neutralize toxins, specifically cyanide-inducing glycosides, heat treatment is a must. Boiling elderberries for at least 30 minutes is the go-to method. This ensures the destruction of harmful compounds. Steaming or baking can also do the trick, as long as the berries reach a high enough temperature.

How do you remove toxins from elderberries? ›

Both the berries and flowers of the elderberry tree are edible, but elderberries need to be cooked before being consumed to eliminate the toxin sambunigrin.

Can you eat elderberries off the bush? ›

Similar to aronia berry, elderberry is also referred to as a "superfruit' due to its high level of antioxidants and associated health benefits. However, unlike the aronia berry, elderberry can be eaten right off the bush and has a sweet taste. Thus, they can be marketed fresh or in you-pick operations.

How do you make elderberries safe to eat? ›

But before we begin, it is essential to note that eating raw elderberries is not advised as they are toxic when uncooked. In this recipe, however, they are brought to the boil, then simmered, making them fine to eat or drink. If you can harvest the berries in season, it is almost free to make.

How do you process fresh elderberries? ›

Elderberries can be juiced as you would juice any other soft fruit. Put them in a saucepan and add a little water to prevent scorching. Heat, and gently simmer until the fruit is softened, then either use a food mill to remove the seeds, or strain the juice through a jelly bag.

Why does cooking elderberries make them safe? ›

Elderberries should always be cooked and processed before they're consumed. Unripened, raw elderberries can release toxins into your body. Even ripe berries can contain trace amounts of cyanide, so you must cook elderberries before consumption.

Does boiling elderberries destroy vitamin C? ›

Elderberries contain vitamin C, but much of it is destroyed by heat. Adding lemon juice provides an additional vitamin C boost to the syrup.

What happens if you don't cook elderberries? ›

The uncooked berries, leaves, bark, and roots of the elderberry plant contain the chemicals lectin and cyanide, which can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Cooking the berries and seeds will remove the cyanide.

Who should not take elderberry? ›

Elderberry appears to have few side effects when used properly for short periods of time (up to 5 days). Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not take elderberry. If you have an autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, ask your doctor before taking elderberry, as it may stimulate the immune system.

Can you eat elderberries off the tree? ›

Can I eat elderberries? Yes, but they should be cooked first to safely remove the lectin and cyanide (toxins). Eaten raw, elderberries have a bitter, tart flavour, but eaten cooked they taste quite different. Raw berries are also mildly poisonous and can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Can you eat elderberry off the vine? ›

Elderberries must not be consumed raw. Elderberry leaves, stems, and seeds contain a cyanogenic glycoside called sambunigrin. Never eat the leaves and try to remove as many as the stems of the berries as possible. Cooking the berries destroys the toxins in the seeds.

How do you use elderberries safely? ›

Elderberry extract appears to be safe when taken in small doses. Taking amounts greater than recommended could be more likely to result in undesirable side effects. Elderberries should always be cooked and processed before they're consumed. Unripened, raw elderberries can release toxins into your body.

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