Elderberry syrup is a delicious beverage that also has proven flu and cold-fighting benefits. Find out how to make your own elderberry syrup from fresh or frozen berries!
Before we tell you HOW to make elderberry syrup, we want to talk to you about WHY you should use elderberry syrup. We think the why is equally or more important than the how-to!
Is food medicine?
It’s unclear whether Hippocrates—the founder of modern medicine—actually said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” 2,500 years ago. Regardless of who said it, we think that claim is quite reasonable based on modern science.
As the US Forest Service states:
“A full 40 percent of the drugs behind the pharmacist’s counter in the Western world are derived from plants that people have used for centuries, including the top 20 best selling prescription drugs in the United States today… Although many medicines have been produced from plant extracts, chemists sometimes find that the synthetic versions do not carry the same therapeutic effects or may have negative side effects not found when using the whole plant source.”
Nope, a good diet won’t cure your broken arm, but it might have kept your bone from breaking in the first place. Plus, given that the vast majority of deaths in the US are caused by preventable diet-related illnesses and diseases, we think it’s time we all start taking our food a little more seriously — including using medicinal foods like elderberries.
Eat to be well
We eat to be well, instead of eating to be fed. Don’t get me wrong, we love eating, and the foods we eat are amazingly delicious. However, we don’t count calories, believe in fad diets, etc. To us, that would take the joy out of eating and replace it with stress, and joy is much better for you than stress.
Our “diet” can be summed up thusly: when hungry, we eat minimally processed, fresh, organically-grown foods. These foods include:
- Eating all the fruits, veggies, and nuts we want.
- Eating animal protein and fat from responsibly/humanely raised animals, such as our duck eggs, or even local grass-fed & finished beef from farmers we know. (Contrary to popular belief, cows can actually be GOOD for the environment when raised using holistic management practices.)
- Eating complex, fiber-rich carbohydrates.
- Lots of homemade fermented products.
- Eating cooked foods, because your body can actually absorb more and better nutrition through most cooked foods than through eating those foods raw (cooked food is one of the greatest technologies humans ever invented, and arguably the technology that made us uniquely human).
Every meal we eat is an investment in our health, the type of economy & agricultural system we want to have, and the environment we’re a part of. So we try to make good investments multiple times each day.
One way you can really improve your diet while lowering your grocery bills is by learning to grow some of your own food. Food doesn’t get fresher, more local or more nutritious than what you eat out of your own yard at the peak of ripeness.
If you learn to use various organic and permaculture growing methods, you’ll be quite surprised with how much you can produce relative to the time and money you invest. You’ll also be surprised by how much wildlife you can support while growing food.
So that’s our WHY for growing and making your own elderberry syrup. Now we can start getting into the how-to’s.
Elderberries: A healthy, home-grown investment
One of the best investments we’ve ever made in our home “food forest” is elderberries. We purchased four elderberry plants (‘Adams’, ‘Nova’, and ‘Johns’ varieties) years back. They didn’t produce the first year, but each year after the plants continue to get bigger and produce more berries.
(Related: If you want to grow your own, read our guide How to grow organic elderberries.)
That’s what’s so wonderful about perennial plants: they produce more food each year with minimal work required. Each elderberry plant also produces lots of runners, so if you want to dig them up and transplant them to grow more elderberries, you’ll have an easy time of it – they also grow incredibly easily from cuttings.
Picking ripe elderberries and elder flowers
This year, we’ll probably end up with over 100 pounds of berries off of our elderberry plants. The plants are now about 10 feet tall and the tip of each branch produces a beautiful cluster of berries that go from green to deep-purple/black color when they’re ripe.
You don’t want to eat the green/unripe berries, leaves, stems or roots of elderberry plants, since they contain cyanide producing glycosides. These compounds dissipate to minute levels when the fruit ripens and are completely broken down when cooked or fermented.
It’s also worth noting that those berry clusters start out as clusters of tiny flowers with a delightful scent in the early spring. Elder flowers are also edible and can be made into wine, liqueur, syrup, kombucha, vinegar, sorbet, or whatever other concoctions you can imagine. In fact, elderflowers are the source of the delightful flavor of St. Germain, the famed French liqueur.
Our favorite thing to do with our elderflowers? Make probiotic sparkling elderflower cordial.
Easiest, fastest way to process elderberries
Cutting an elderberry umbel (the umbrella shaped cluster of berries) from the plant is the easy part. Removing all those tiny berries from the umbels is the part that growers typically dread because it’s so time-consuming. (Remember: you don’t want to ingest the stems, so you can’t cook them with the berries.)
It used to take us about 4 hours to remove a gallon of elderberries from the umbels in order to make elderberry syrup. Now it takes us less than 5 minutes.
How? We now use a steam juicer to process our elderberries, which means the stems don’t have to be removed first.
If this sounds as life-saving to you as it was to us, check out our article: Steam juicer: the fastest, easiest way to process elderberries.
You can also forage native elderberries and elderflowers
Don’t have your own elderberry plants? No worries.
Elderberries grow natively around the globe, including throughout North America, where they were apparently quite popular with indigenous American cultures. Our native, non-cultivated varieties are also quite good for eating.
Where we live at the base of the Appalachian Mountains in South Carolina, we see native elderberries everywhere: open fields, along creeks, growing out of ditches, etc. If foraging elderberries, just make sure: a) you’re 100% certain you’ve properly ID’d the plants/berries, and b) you do it in areas that haven’t been sprayed with herbicides.
Can elderberry syrup really help with flus, colds, and other viruses?
Elderberries have become a bit of a health food sensation over the past 10+ years as several research studies have found that they can reduce the severity and duration of influenza (aka the flu). For instance, a 2015 study by E. Tiralongo and Dr S. Wee from Griffith’s Menzies Health Institute Queensland showed that elderberry can also treat the common cold and respiratory problems often experienced by airline passengers.
These research studies showed great health benefits from using powderized elderberry extracts, so we’re curious if using a high-quality, high-potency elderberry syrup made from the compounds in whole elderberries would show even better results. (See food synergy.)
We’re also curious whether elderberry syrup can possibly help prevent the onset of influenza or common colds.
In this regard, we (The Tyrant and I) are human guinea pigs on our own non-scientific research study since we drink elderberry syrup throughout the year, including flu season. The Tyrant has been sick twice in the past 10+ years and I’ve been sick for one day over that same time span.
Elderberry syrup isn’t our silver bullet, it’s just one of many hacks we use to stay healthy.
What do elderberries and elderberry syrup taste like?
Eaten fresh off the plant, elderberries aren’t among the most delicious berries you’ll ever eat. They’re certainly not bad. The flavor is similar to a dull grape-blueberry combination — and they’re a bit seedy.
However, when reduced/concentrated via cooking plus having a bit of sweet added (via stevia or honey), the flavor of elderberries really intensifies and becomes delightful, making for great pies, jams and fruit leather. Cooked elderberries (including elderberry syrup) taste like a combination of concentrated blueberry and grape juice with a dash of red wine – it’s quite a unique flavor.
Our favorite way to prepare elderberries is to make them into sealed jars of elderberry syrup that we can open and sip regularly throughout the year—and maybe a bit more during flu season if we’re out in public a lot.
Elderberry syrup is very easy to make. The color of cooked elderberry juice/syrup is a deep, dark purple, indicative of the high amount of anthocyanins they contain (a class of flavonoid).
How to make elderberry syrup without a steam juicer
As mentioned above, by far the easiest way to make elderberry syrup is using a steam juicer. Once you’ve extracted the elderberry juice via steam juicing, you add a bit of citric acid, sweetener (liquid stevia or honey), then cook it down by 40-50% to make it rich and thick.
Don’t have a steam juicer? Follow the instructions below to make elderberry syrup without a steam juicer:
Our elderberry syrup recipe (below) makes 9-10 cups of elderberry syrup. If you want to make more (and less thick) syrup, don’t boil it as long after straining. If you want to make less (and more thick) syrup, boil it longer after straining.
1. cone strainer – a cone-shaped sauce strainer with legs works best since it lifts the strainer above the fluid you’ll be straining out, but a bowl-shaped pasta strainer will work fine too
3. the individual items below, or an affordable canning set which includes everything listed
4. large pots (one for making syrup and another for canning/boiling water)
5. canning jars
6. metal ladle for putting juice into jars
7. metal canning funnel to reduce spills while putting juice into jars
8. magnetized canning lid lifter (optional but makes the job easier)
9. jar lifter (again, optional but easier)
*For food safety reasons, you may want to invest in a canner set or even a pressure canner if you plan to do a lot of canning.
**If you don’t want to go through the trouble of canning (or the risk of not properly sealing your jars), you can also get freezer-safe jars and simply freeze your elderberry syrup.
Recipe: Elderberry syrup made from fresh or frozen elderberries
Elderberry syrup made from fresh or frozen berries
Elderberry syrup is a potent flu and cold-fighting drink that also happens to taste great! You can make this elderberry syrup recipe from homegrown or foraged elderberries (fresh or frozen). A serving size can be as little as a single tablespoon or as much as a shot glass.
- Note: Adjust recipe up or down depending on how many elderberries you have.
- 10 pounds of fresh or frozen elderberries
- 3 cups of organic pure cane sugar Note: Sugar is technically optional, but makes the end product taste a bit better. Adjust sugar amount to your tastes. You can also use grapes as a sugar replacement.
- 1 tbsp citric acid powder
Put all ingredients into a large pot over medium heat.
Stir to prevent initial fruit scalding. The berries will soon begin heating and bursting, and there will soon be plenty of fluid to prevent the fruit from scalding. (*If using frozen berries, add some water to the pot before cooking to prevent scald, since it will take a while for the frozen berries to thaw.)
Bring to low boil and let it continue at a low boil with no lid for 30-60 minutes, stirring occasionally.
After the mixture has reduced about 50% from its initial level, remove from heat and let it sit until it's cooled enough not to burn you when touched.
Place folded cheesecloth inside strainer. Place strainer inside of large pot of bowl where strained juice will go.
Once cooled enough to touch, pour elderberry mixture into cheesecloth/strainer that is sitting in pot/large bowl. Using your hands or a sturdy spoon, push as much juice out of the berry mixture as possible. You'll end up with a bunch of lightly damp fiber, seeds and pulp left in the cheesecloth. This is great for compost or perhaps your chickens will like it (our ducks show no interest). If you throw it into the trash, the Elderberry Witch will haunt you and ten of your friends for 11 years - no, not really.
Now you should have a nice pot of thick elderberry juice. Place the elderberry juice back on the stove over medium heat or until the fluid is at a low boil. At the same time, boil small canning jars in water for 15 minutes to sanitize them.
Continue at a low boil until the juice mixture has been reduced another 25% or so, then remove from heat.
Recommend using pressure canner (for safety) or freezing your elderberry syrup in freezer-safe jars. However, if using water bath canning method: remove jars from boiling water. Put funnel in each jar and fill each jar with elderberry syrup to just below the thread line. Use magnetized canning lid lifter to dip each lid into boiling water for about 10 seconds to sanitize it and soften the rim sealer. Screw lids on to each jar so that they're in place but not tight - you want a little give.
Place jars back into boiling water so that the water is at least 1-2" above the surface of the jar. Cover pot. Set timer for 15-20 minutes and allow water to boil the entire time.
Remove jars and put on stove or counter top. Jars should make a "pop" sound and the lids will indent slightly. This indicates that they have properly sealed and are safe for storage. If they do NOT seal properly, you'll want to reseal them by boiling for another 5 minutes OR plan to store them in a fridge or freezer. You can get very sick or die by eating improperly canned/sealed food items.
Enjoy elderberry syrup throughout the year
Once you’ve made elderberry syrup, simply take out a new jar each time you finish off an old one. We enjoy sipping on a full shot glass of elderberry syrup several nights per week throughout the year.
Elderberry syrup can make a great addition to your healthy lifestyle. We hope you’ll enjoy this delicious homemade and homegrown medicine!
Dive deeper into elderberries with these related articles:
- Recipe: elderflower kombucha
- How to make sparkling elderflower cordial
- Complete guide to growing elderberries organically
- Recipe: Raspberry-elderflower-honey sparkling cordial