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 you pick them? ›

Separate the berries from the stems with a fork and then freeze them. Alternatively, freeze elderberry panicles for a few hours before removing the berries. This is a great way to avoid elderberry juice stains.

What time of year is it best to pick elderberries? ›

From around August to October elderberries are in season and ready for picking. They're not grown commercially so if you want fresh berries be prepared to go foraging. Some varieties of elderberries can be toxic when eaten raw – the best way to avoid this is to make sure you always cook your elderberries well first.

How do you pick and store elderberries? ›

Elderberries are highly perishable, and to preserve as many of their healthful phenolic compounds as possible, it is advisable to place berries into a cooler in the field, and refrigerate them soon after harvest, within 2-4 hours. It is also best to minimize storage time before processing.

How long do elderberries last once picked? ›

Harvesting Elderberries

Elderberries are exceptionally perishable fruit, which is why you never find them at farmer's markets or at your local grocery. Once harvested you have less than 12 hours to either cook them or freeze them, as they will begin to ferment quickly, so plan your harvesting day accordingly.

Can you eat elderberries straight from the tree? ›

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.

Can you ripen elderberries after picking? ›

Green or bright red elderberries are bitter, and possibly toxic, even when cooked. How to tell when elderberries are ready to harvest: Ripe elderberries tend to be a deep purple to black colour. Underripe elderberries will not ripen after being harvested. Do not eat elderberries when green.

How do you make elderberries safe to eat? ›

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 cyanide from elderberries? ›

After gathering your elderberries, rinse them thoroughly under running water. This will help remove any dirt or tiny creatures that may have hitched a ride. Next, you need to cook the elderberries to remove the cyanide. Cooking elderberries breaks down their cyanogenic glycosides, thus making them safe to consume.

How long to cook elderberries to remove toxins? ›

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.

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 do you pick and dry elderberries? ›

Preserving Elderberries

May favorite ways to preserve the harvest from elderberry season are the aforementioned syrup, wine, liqueur, and pontack. But after harvesting elderberries you can dehydrate them for another day. Set your dehydrator to 135°F for, well, a while. It takes up to 14 hours to get them leathery.

Can I freeze 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.

How many pounds of elderberries per bush? ›

Harvest. In the first year after planting an elderberry, a small crop will be produced. Production on mature plants starting in the third year can range from 12 to 15 pounds per plant, and up to 12,000 pounds per acre.

Can you eat unripe elderberries? ›

2: Unripe elderberry is an effective poison

This fact alone probably accounts for why so much time elapsed between when humans first became aware of elderberries and when they began consuming them. For the record, you can neutralize the poisonous effects by simply cooking your unripe elderberries.

How long to cook elderberries to remove cyanide? ›

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.

Can I freeze fresh picked 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.

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