Have frozen or fresh elderberries? Come find out how to make fermented elderberry syrup: a simple immune-boosting herbal remedy with antiviral properties, claims which are supported by modern science.
Elderberries: a tasty home remedy you can grow
We have a youngster in pre-k. Not surprisingly, all his teachers, classmates, and their parents have been getting repeatedly wiped out by various illnesses: COVID, flu, RSV, colds, etc.
Even the healthiest kids get sick, our little one included. But our family has been very fortunate since the start of school (knock on wood).
We’ve all had minor bugs, but nothing serious or debilitating. We eat well, exercise, and get plenty of sunlight and outdoor time, so those factors certainly work in our favor. While can’t prove it, but we also suspect some of the “plant medicine” we eat from our garden is giving our immune systems a big boost, particularly elderberries.
Our four mature elderberry plants produce mounds of berries each summer, enough to give us a steady supply throughout the year — most importantly during flu season. (See: How to grow your own elderberries organically.)
First, we steam juice our elderberries to quickly turn them into elderberry juice, then cook down the elderberry juice into a more concentrated elderberry syrup recipe, which we consume in small quantities throughout the year.
Each afternoon since our son started pre-k, he also requests an elderberry popsicle (made from watered down elderberry syrup with a bit of stevia). We’re happy to oblige his indulgence in this tasty medicine!
What does science say about elderberries as medicine?
We like to grow and use herbal remedies that are evidence-based, e.g. supported by modern science. Elderberries meet that standard.
Different species of elderberries grow around the world and have been used by indigenous populations (including Native Americans) as food and medicine for as long as people have lived alongside them. A 2022 review in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology details the following folk uses of elderberries:
“Traditionally, they [elderberry plants] have been used as remedies to numerous health complications among others, bone fractures and rheumatism, diabetes, wounds, inflammatory diseases, diarrhea, menstrual pains, respiratory and pulmonary complaints, skin disorders, headaches, snakebites, and urinary tract infections.”
Over the past couple decades, researchers have started investigating the medical efficacy of various elderberry formulations and extracts. Turns out, elderberries do indeed have some pretty remarkable health benefits. The same study cited above also notes:
“The crude extracts and the isolated chemical constituents exhibited diverse outstanding pharmacological activities including antioxidant, antimicrobial, antidiabetic, anti-inflammatory, antidepressant, analgesic, anti-giardial, immunomodulatory, scolicidal, anti-ulcerogenic, antiradical, bone-protective, anti-glycemic, antiosteoporotic, hypolipidemic, anti-glycation, and wound-healing properties.”
Another recent study states:
“Numerous pharmacological studies confirm the immunomodulatory, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and antimicrobial activities of S. nigra [European black elderberry] extracts. Polyphenols, such as phenolic acids, flavonoids and anthocyanins are perhaps the most important bioactive compounds…”
Elderberries’ anti-viral effects
Years back, we decided to start growing elderberries as food and medicine due to research showing its anti-viral benefits. For instance, one study with a relatively small sample size found the following:
“Patients received 15 ml of elderberry or placebo syrup four times a day for 5 days, and recorded their symptoms using a visual analogue scale. Symptoms were relieved on average 4 days earlier and use of rescue medication was significantly less in those receiving elderberry extract compared with placebo. Elderberry extract seems to offer an efficient, safe and cost-effective treatment for influenza [flu].”
Do elderberries cause a cytokine storm?
Some people are concerned about elderberry’s potential to overstimulate the immune system, thus causing a cytokine storm, something that would be problematic for a person infected with COVID-19. However, the limited research on this specific topic does not currently support this fear.
Here are key excerpts from a 2022 study published in the journal Advanced Biomedical Research evaluating the advantages and risks of using elderberry as a COVID-19 remedy:
“Elderberry possesses antiviral effects as a result of its capacity to regulate pro-inflammatory cytokines and has been shown to be effective against a variety of viruses both in vitro and in vivo.
Part of elderberry activity involves increasing cytokine production at the first stage of viral attachment and early viral replication. This helps kill the virus and stop replication. Once the cytokine storm begins, it theoretically would no longer be appropriate, but there is no data either way. The current evidence suggests elderberry is appropriate for the prevention and initial treatment of viral disease.
It does not appear to overstimulate the immune system. There is still a lot of uncertainty about both the advantages and the dangers of this treatment; therefore, more recent and ongoing research is needed to draw definite conclusions.”
Why FERMENTED elderberry syrup?
Since we already have our own elderberry syrup, why would we bother making this new recipe: fermented elderberry syrup? A few reasons.
Fermented elderberry syrup provides:
- unique and delicious flavors,
- probiotic properties (beneficial bacteria and yeast) which aid gut health,
- nutritional and medicinal enhancement.
The addition of raw honey in our recommended preparation methods also enhances the three benefits listed above. Yes, raw honey has a similar list of proven health benefits comparable to elderberries, including being virucidal, aka killing viruses. (Source)
In short, fermented elderberry syrup is something we make in small batches and use much more sparingly than our standard elderberry syrup. It’s our heavy hitter; the thing we turn to when one of us is developing a cough or we get the latest message from our son’s school saying there’s another illness sweeping through.
And if you go to your local grocery store or pharmacy, you won’t find anything remotely comparable in quality to your own homemade honey-fermented elderberry syrup.
Which types or varieties of elderberry can you use to make this recipe?
Short answer: When making fermented elderberry syrup, only use ripe berries from species of elderberries which produce black or blue berries. Don’t use red elderberries.
European black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is the most studied elderberry species, perhaps owing to the fact that elderberry farming and consumption has a long history in Europe. However, research conducted on many other species of elderberries confirms they have similar botanical compounds which confer similar health benefits to humans. (Exception: Red elderberry, which we’ll discuss more below.)
For instance, we grow three different bred cultivars of Sambucus canadensis, a species native to much of North America, which grows from USDA hardiness zones 5-8. The fruit ripens to such a dark purple color that the berries appear black, due to high concentrations of anthocyanin compounds in the relatively acidic fruit. Not surprisingly, research shows this species of elderberry has potent medicinal compounds as well.
Don’t have a black-ripening elderberry? You could also use blue elderberries.
However, we’d advise you NOT to use red elderberries since their edibility is contested, especially when uncooked. Plus, they’re supposedly bitter and unpleasant when consumed raw. Not a winning combination.
When using black of blue elderberries, also make sure the berries you use are ripe. Fresh or frozen berries is fine, however don’t use dried elderberries because won’t have the necessary water content.
Green and unripe elderberries are relatively high in cyanogenic glycosides. Even though the fermentation process significantly degrades those compounds, there’s no reason to use the unripe berries.
How to make fermented elderberry syrup
We made two test batches of fermented elderberry syrup to see how each would develop and which one we’d like best:
- Basic honey elderberry – Made with one part raw honey and one part raw ripe elderberries (measured by volume not weight). Example: 1 cup honey + 1 cup elderberries
- Honey elderberry plus – Made with 1 cup elderberries, 1 cup honey, 1 tablespoon fennel flowers (you could substitute fennel seeds), 1 tablespoon molasses.
Both ferments were made as follows:
- Whole, uncrushed raw elderberries were put in to honey.
- Ingredients were placed in standard glass canning jars.
- Each glass jar was covered with a breathable paper towel held firm by a rubber band.
- Jars were kept indoors out of direct sunlight and maintained at room temperature, specifically 70 – 75°F (21 – 24°C).
- Ingredients in each mason jar were stirred/mixed with a sterile spoon once per day prior to fermentation starting. Once fermentation started (as evidenced by formation of small bubbles), ingredients were vigorously stirred twice per day.
- Berries were strained from both jars after 8 weeks. (You don’t have to strain out the berries, but it does make the syrup easier to use if you do.) Finished ferments were placed in refrigerator for long-term storage and to halt fermentation.
How does the wild fermentation process work?
Species of native yeasts and lactic acid bacteria (LAB) are present on fruit and in honey. They just need the right environment (temperature, pH, moisture levels, nutrient availability, etc) to proliferate.
First, the LAB start working (slowly) on the elderberries. As the skins on the berries begin to break open due to degradation and stirring, the elderberries release their juices into the honey. The increased water levels in the media then allows the LAB to start proliferating.
The LAB primarily consume sugar in the fruit and honey. In the process, they produce ethanol, raise the acidity of the environment, and release CO2 (which creates the bubbles). Soon, the native yeasts wake up and start proliferating as well, which makes the ferment even more active.
When does fermentation start and when is it done?
Honey is naturally antimicrobial, so we expected to wait a long time for fermentation to get started in both batches.
Interestingly, the basic honey elderberry ferment started bubbling first, after about 23 days. It took one week longer (Day 30) for the other “Plus” batch to start fermenting.
We considered our fermented elderberry syrup done after 8 weeks, but this decision is somewhat subjective. On the other extreme, if you let the fermentation process go on for 6 months, you’d probably end up with something approximating a condensed elderberry vinegar: highly acidic, lower sugar, and inhospitable to microbial life. That wouldn’t be ideal for a medicinal syrup.
Store in fridge, not at room temperature
When your fermented elderberry syrup is finished to your liking, store it in your fridge in airtight jars. The cold temperature doesn’t kill the probiotic microbes, it basically just puts them to sleep. Shelf life: this ferment will last for months in your fridge.
However, stored at room temperature inside an airtight jar, pressure could build up inside causing the jars to explode.
We like the flavor of the basic honey elderberry syrup the best, as did our son. It’s sweet, slightly tangy, with pleasant berry notes.
The other honey elderberry plus ferment is wonderfully complex and interesting, but tastes more medicinal. Our son wasn’t much of a fan of this one. We were also surprised by how strongly the fennel flower flavor came through, giving the syrup a strong licorice flavor.
- If you’re making this syrup with kids in mind, go with the basic honey elderberry syrup recipe.
- If you’re an adult who loves licorice, go with the honey elderberry plus recipe!
How much fermented elderberry syrup should you use?
Use anywhere between 1 teaspoon and 1 tablespoon of fermented elderberry syrup per serving whenever you feel the need (onset of illness, scratchy throat, etc). You can also use it multiple times per day when you’re feeling under the weather.
Other ingredients to consider:
Once you’ve got the hang of making your own fermented, homemade elderberry syrup, here are some other ingredients you might consider including in your own test batches:
- cinnamon stick,
- whole cloves,
- cardamom pods,
- star anise,
- echinacea (various parts).
Fermented elderberry syrup
A delicious medicinal syrup made from raw elderberries (fresh or frozen). Perfect for cold or flu season!
- 1 cup fresh or frozen raw, organic elderberries
- 1 cup raw honey
- optional: 1 tbsp molasses + 1 tbsp fennel flowers or seeds (*See article for two different syrup recipe versions, plus ingredient additions you might want to consider.)
Put elderberries in quart glass jar. If using additional ingredients (like fennel, cinnamon stick, molasses) add it to jar now. Pour honey over elderberries and let it settle.
Cover jar with linen cloth or paper towel, then hold firm with either rubber band or metal lid. Stir once per day. Expect fermentation to start somewhere between Weeks 3-4, at which point you'll see small bubbles forming on the surface. At this point, start stirring the mixture twice per day, once in the morning and once at night.
It's your decision to figure out when the ferment is done. We stop ours around Week 8. At that point, strain the berries (you can toss these in a bowl of yogurt). Put finished syrup in glass jars with airtight lids and immediately store in fridge. Do NOT store at room temperature. Fermented elderberry syrup can be safely stored in your fridge for many months.
Let us know in the comments how your fermented elderberry syrup turns out and what unique ingredients you decided to use. And please drop us a recipe rating. Enjoy!
More elderberry articles you’ll love:
- Steam juicer: the fastest, easiest way to process elderberries
- Recipe: elderflower kombucha
- How to make elderberry syrup
- How to make sparkling elderflower cordial
- Raspberry-elderflower-honey sparkling cordial