Harvesting Elderberries: Picking, Preserving & Recipes | Foraging tips & handy hints for picking & preserving elderberries with plenty of recipe ideas!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Try my Elderberry 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.
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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Sunday 8th of August 2021
Just discovered wild elder berry tree on our property on the South Coast of Oregon USA. Was busy this summer and didn't check them till today. Went on line to see when they ripen and it said mid August to Sept. Thought I must be just in time but when I checked they were all gone. The branches they were on are all dried out. Did they ripen early or did all the birds eat them first. We don't have hot weather but have had a lot of drying wind this summer. Is there a variety of wild elderberry that ripens early?
Sunday 15th of August 2021
Hello Valerie, sorry to hear you've missed out on your elderberries this year. I'm not familiar with varieties of elder in the USA so I'm afraid I can't offer a direct answer to your question. Here in the UK, the poor start to our summer means things are definitely ripening later. Having said that, in recent years it seems the seasons' timings are varying way more than I remember in the past.
Over here, if the berries are left for the birds to take, the umbrels on elderflower do dry out once the berries are gone. Maybe your local birds spotted a crop of berries and stripped it ? (I swear the birds set a date in their diaries every year and stripped our cherry tree just before we planned to harvest the fruit)
If your tree is looking sorry for itself, a bit of pruning (this winter during the dormant season) might be worthwhile. I'm guessing the variety you have will be pretty resilient as is the case with elder generally.
Monday 23rd of November 2020
I see elderberries like in your pictures where I live, but I have seen other people that show pictures of a pale blue berry. Is that a different variety? I found some where I live while they were in bloom. In fall I went back and they were the pale blue. I was afraid to try them, as I wasn't sure, but I see them on some sites and wonder if they were?
Tuesday 24th of November 2020
Hi Lucinda, elderberry varieties in the UK are purple to almost black and start off red. I haven't come across a pale blue berry variety in the UK. Sorry I can't be of more help but you are right not to pick them. You don't want to be ill from eating a berry you're not sure of. Maybe there is a local forager's club you could ask for advice. Do let me know if you found out what the berries are.
Monday 21st of September 2020
This was a really useful and clear post on harvesting elderberries - thanks for sharing! It helped me a lot to know what I needed to do to pick and prepare some from our communal garden last weekend.
Wednesday 30th of September 2020
It's a pleasure to share Imogen, so pleased you found the information useful. How lovely to be involved in a communal garden.
Friday 14th of August 2020
I ‘m a winemaker and elderberries are possibly my favourite thing to make it from. They’re not called the ‘Englishman’s Grape’ for nothing! Another favourite is an elderberry/blackberry mix; blackberry on its own remains a bit sweet and syrupy, almost like a port.
Am finding elderberries are ripening on different trees at different rates this year. Some of my usual sources are very ripe, which seems a little early, whilst some still have little but green berries on. The heat has given a good crop it looks like!
Friday 14th of August 2020
Hi Chris, thanks for popping by. We used to make Elderberry wine, it is delicious and well worth the effort. I'm waiting for our elderberries to ripen, yours do seem early, a bonus!
Tuesday 11th of August 2020
my father and his mother made elderberry pies...they preserved the fresh elderberries with only sugar and kept them in a air tight containter in the old fruit celler...I still have some from four years ago in sealed mason jars.... I can not find the amount of sugar they added...We did not cook the berries until they went into the pie..have you ever heard of this?
Wednesday 12th of August 2020
Thanks for getting on touch Richard. Sugar does work as good preserver but I must admit I've never tried this method. It would be interesting to know how much sugar they used and whether the fruit is well preserved after four years.