When it comes to summer flavors, Blue Elderberries are hard to beat. These tasty berries can be used in baked goods, processed for juice/jelly/syrup or dried/frozen for future use. Right now is peak Elderberry season, so we’d like to share some tricks about picking, cleaning and processing these little gems.
Blue Elderberries are ripe when they turn a light blue color (see above). The berry skin is actually a very dark purple, but a waxy white ‘bloom’ makes them appear blue. Unripe berries are green or pale purple and should be left on the tree to ripen. Since unripe berries contain several chemicals which can make you sick (mildly toxic), be sure to pick only the ripe berries. Sometimes green berries will develop a waxy bloom, fooling you into thinking they are ripe (see below). You can check for ripeness by rubbing off the bloom and observing the color of the skin beneath. One good hint that the berries are unripe is if the birds aren’t eating them – they know a ripe berry when they see one!
Elderberries are one of the easiest native berries to pick. They do stain, so you’ll want to wear old clothes for picking and processing them. And picking berries is always more fun if you’ve got company. So enlist a friend, family member – even a neighbor child – to join the picking party.
We find it best to harvest an entire berry cluster just below the closest leaves (see below). You can store the clusters in a plastic bag and do the final processing indoors – and at your leisure. A light-weight garden pruner or sturdy kitchen scissors is adequate for harvesting low-growing clusters.
As your tree grows, you may find it useful to invest in a long reach pruner. You won’t need the heavy duty models – one that costs $30-40 will do and give you years of service.
Elderberries are relatively fragile (have a short shelf life). It’s best to refrigerate them as soon as possible and clean/process them within several days of picking.
The first step is to remove the berries from the green stems. These stems are bitter, mildly toxic and should be discarded. An easy way to separate berries from the stems is to grasp the stem in one hand and gently rake off the berries with the fingers of the other hand. Some people use a large comb to dislodge the berries, but we’ve found that the ‘finger rake’ method gives better control. Be sure to also remove any old dried flowers, leaves and other debris that may have hitched a ride along with the berries.
Before you know it you’ll have a bowl full of berries ready to wash. We find it easiest to use an old-fashioned colander or large strainer/sieve. If you put the colander in a bowl, you can wash the berries under running water and scoop off the floating debris (old flowers/dry berries) with ease.
Once the berries are washed you can freeze them for later use, dry them (for use in tea or baked goods) or turn them into juice. Drying elderberries is quite simple. We’ve found that the easiest method is to spread them out on a piece of window screen to dry. You can purchase window screening from many hardware stores and cut it to the size you need. We lay the screen on a cooling rack, and place the rack inside a sheet pan or baking tray (see below). This allows for good air circulation around the berries and catches any juice that may drip during the drying process.
You can air dry the berries if the weather is hot and dry. You’ll want to cover the pan with another piece of screen or cheesecloth if you dry them outdoors in the shade. With a little care – and a good oven thermometer - you can dry your berries in the oven. Warm the oven (to less than 125 degrees – that’s important), turn the oven off and place the berry tray in the oven to dry. It will probably take several re-warming sessions to entirely dry the berries. Even better, use a food dehydrator fitted with screens to keep the small berries from falling through.
The dry berries are hard & shriveled – store them in a jar with a tight-fitting lid for later use.
Making elderberry juice isn’t difficult, but some basic jelly-making equipment makes the job a whole lot easier. If you plan to make a lot of jelly, juice or syrup we heartily recommend purchasing a jelly strainer stand and bag. This handy tool costs less than $20.00 at hardware/kitchen stores (or on-line), takes minimal space when stored and makes berry juicing a snap. The stand fits over a pot or bowl (see below) and allows the juice to drain through the bag, leaving the pulp and seeds behind. The bags are usually a plastic mesh, but muslin (cloth) bags are sometimes still available.
To make juice, place clean berries in a large, heavy saucepan. Crush the berries with a spoon or potato masher. Fill the pan with water to just above the berries.
Simmer the berries on medium heat for about 30 minutes or until juice is a dark color. Strain hot pulp mixture through a jelly strainer bag (or a large sieve lined with several layers of cheesecloth) to obtain prepared juice. Let the juice filter through the strainer bag until the juice cools and the dripping stops.
You can use the juice immediately to make jelly or syrup, store it in a jar in the refrigerator (for about 5 days) or freeze it for later use. In our next posting (http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2012/08/elderberry-recipes.html) we’ll share some of our favorite Elderberry recipes. For more tips on preserving the fruits of summer see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/08/california-gourmet-preserving-summer.html