Exquisite Elderberries 2: Making and Preserving Elderberry Syrup

This is my second contribution to home-made elderberry recipes. We just can't get enough of the wonderful fruity scent, taste and purple color.

At this time of the year, my fingers are usually itching to go elderberry picking. Elderberries make rich fruity preserves and syrups but also contain beneficial compounds that are said to help treat various ailments. Interestingly, elderberry extract has been found to have antiviral properties in medical studies. So the traditional use of elderberry syrup for treating coughs and colds definitely seem to be more than an old wives tale. While using elderberries to make tasty and healthy treats, you should be aware that elderberries must not be consumed raw and must be cooked. (If you don't want to experience nausea and, erghm, significant laxative effect.)

How to make and preserve concentrated elderberry syrup. 

Making elderberry syrup is very easy and rewarding. Before you start you will need:

  • Elderberries(Sambucus nigra)- I recommend picking at least 1kg of elderberries, which should give you around 500ml juice. Look for fully ripe juicy purple-black berries with no or only a minimal number of unripe berries. Look for healthy full bunches, if the berries don't look inviting look at other bushes around. It is very common to find that one bush is only half ripe or past due while a nearby bush is just perfect.

  • If you wish you can also use some spices such as ginger, cinnamon, star anise and cloves.

  • Sweetener of your choice: Sugar is commonly used, but you can also use honey or plant-based sweeteners such as maple syrup. You could also make elderberry concentrate without any sweetener.

As I have described in detail in a previous post, sugar doesn't only make your fruit preserves sweet; it contributes to their preservation because high amounts of sugar prevent the growth of microorganisms. The traditional quantity in fruit preservation calls for the use of up to 100g of sugar to 100g of fruit/fruit juice. This will make your syrup very longlasting.....and VERY sweet. For obvious reasons, I want to avoid putting this diabetes-inducing-pancreas-draining quantity of sugar into an otherwise healthful product. But I also want o make it last more than couple of weeks at most. I will describe how to sterilise your syrup to make it last until the next elderberry season. If you don't want to do that its okay, you can also store it in the fridge and use within approx. two weeks. 

You will need a few bottles/jars with a screw on metal cap. You definitely don't need purpose made preservation bottles and jars. You can simply collect jars from food product that you normally use. The other day I saw a small preservation bottle sold for £2.50. Then I went to Lidl and bought £0.87 Peri Peri sauce in a bottle that will do exactly the same job. Small glass tomato puree jars and olive jars work perfectly too.  It is always good to use several smaller jars than one large, because after opening you will want to store your syrup in the fridge and use up fairly quickly. 

You will also need a strainer and a muslin cloth  (old-fashioned handkerchiefs are perfect for this purpose )

Finally, how to make concentrated elderberry syrup step by step:

1. Wash elderberry heads and pick off berries either by hand or using a fork. Remove as many stems as possible - stems would make your preserve taste bitter. If you put your berries in a bowl of water, it is quite easy to remove debris, leaves, stems and the odd unripe berry as they mostly float to the top. 

Cleaning the berries can feel like a futile never-ending task. Relax and don't overthink it, if an odd piece of stem or dry petal stays here and there, its okay and it will still work fine.

2. Put elderberries in a saucepan, add a half to one cup of water and bring to boil. Simmer gently for approx. 10-15 minutes. It is unnecessary to add a large amount of water because elderberries will release plenty of liquid as you cook them. You don't want to dilute the elderberry goodness. Add any spices if using.

3.In the meanwhile wash your preserving jars and lids in soapy water thoroughly and dry. Stand them on a tray and in the oven. Turn on the oven between 80-100C. Sterilize for 20 minutes or until you need them.

 It is good practice to turn on the oven AFTER you have put the jars in. If you put cold glasses in a hot oven, occasionally, a glass could crack. Do not set the temperature to more than 100C.

4. Line a strainer with a muslin and strain the elderberry juice. Use the muslin to squeeze the last drop out. 

5. Return the elderberry juice into a clean saucepan.

6.OPTIONAL: Simmer the juice for another 15-30 minutes to evaporate some water and reduce it by one third or one half. This will result in your juice being thicker and more potent but you will have significantly less syrup. 

7. Add sweetener of choice to taste and simmer a few more minutes until well dissolved.

8. Pour hot syrup into your prepared hot jars. Screw the lids on tightly.

Make sure you use an oven mitt or a couple of tea towels and handle the hot jars and hot syrup very carefully. Do not overfill, fill approximately one centimeter below rim. Make sure that the rims of jars are clean before putting the lids on, liquid on the rim could introduce microorganism and break the seal. Wipe any drips with a paper towel before closing.

9. Return your filled and closed jars in the oven and sterilise for further 10-20 minutes at a temperature between 80-100C. When finished take jars out and leave to cool.

My mum taught me to turn the jars upside down when taken out of the oven. It's not vital but can help to create a good vacuum seal on the lids as the jars are cooling. (It has to do the with the scientific rule of reducing volume of gas while it is cooling :) ) 

Store your syrup in a cool dark place until needed. Store in the fridge once opened. Use a spoonful during cough season, as a healthy drizzle over yogurt or pancakes or dilute for a refreshing drink.

Katerina Qabaha