If you grow elderberries like we do, you may also dread elderberry season and the many hours of time it takes to remove the small berries from the stems after harvest. Good news: a steam juicer can cut your elderberry processing time down from multiple hours to a few minutes. In this article, we’ll show you how!
We’ve been growing Sambucus canadensis elderberry varieties for over a decade. We love the small yet delectable edible flowers and black-purple ripe berries elderberry plants produce.
Having jars of homegrown, homemade elderberry syrup on hand is one of our hacks for keeping our immune systems primed for virus battles throughout the year. (See How to make elderberry syrup and How to avoid getting sick & feel better.)
Nevertheless, we have recurring nightmares about elderberry season that go something like this: we’re surrounded by giant bowls full of ripe elderberries on the stems. A clock is ticking in the background as the fruit begins to degrade. No matter how fast and how many elderberries we pull off the stems, more giant bowls of elderberries pile up behind them.
Each year from late July through mid August, we awaken from this nightmare to find that the nightmare is in fact real…
Terrifying bowls full of unprocessed elderberries haunt us from their perches atop our kitchen counter while we stay awake deep into the night frantically pulling them off the stems with purple-stained fingers while putting them into freezer bags.
Each 1 gallon bag of elderberries in our freezers takes about 4 hours to process by hand. We usually finish out the season with about 10 gallons of elderberries so that’s a lot of extra hours to find over a few weeks.
If you’re like us, you might also wonder if there’s a better way to remove elderberries from their stems?
Standard methods to remove elderberries from the stems
Commercial elderberry operations have expensive equipment to help process elderberries. Such equipment is cost-prohibitive for small home producers though.
In addition to hand-pulling elderberries, we’ve tried two other methods to remove elderberries from their stems:
1. “Bucket smack” elderberry removal
With some elderberry varieties, you can hold the base of a freshly cut stem of raw elderberries and smack it back and forth against the inside of a 5-gallon bucket, forcing the berries to drop off the stems (at least most of the berries).
With other elderberry varieties, this method simply pulverizes the berries and makes a giant mess.
Is this method faster than hand-pulling the berries? Yes. But it’s not better.
2. Freeze whole stems then remove elderberries
Another recommended elderberry removal method is to put the stems (with berries on) in bags in the freezer. Once frozen, the berries can more easily be pulled from the stems or whacked against the inside of a bucket to remove them.
Here are the problems we’ve experienced with this method:
- We don’t have enough freezer space to accommodate as many stemmed elderberries as we harvest each night.
- Once frozen, a lot of the tiny elderberry stems also snap off along with the frozen berries (at least with our elderberry varieties). As you probably know, you don’t want to eat anything other than flowers or fully ripe elderberries since other parts of the plant contain cyanogenic glycosides, which are poisonous.
- Since they’re so small, frozen elderberries thaw quickly once out of the freezer so they soon start turning to mush as you proceed.
- Your fingers quickly turn numb from cold.
If you only have a small quantity of certain types of elderberries, the freeze-first method may be ideal. In our trials, it wasn’t a great solution.
Our public plea for elderberry processing help
We’re connected to a lot of other foragers and food producers through our social media channels. (If you haven’t already, connect with us on Instagram and Facebook!) Thus, we put forth a public complaint about our elderberry nightmares which received quite a few responses.
Mostly, people commiserated. A few other folks recommended the freeze-first method, which we’re not fans of.
However, two people recommended something we’d never heard of or considered for processing elderberries: a steam juicer aka steam extractor. What newfangled contraption is this, we inquired?
What is a steam juicer?
As it turns out, steam juicers are actually old-fashioned contraptions that likely long predate electricity. A steam juicer is a three chambered stacked pot with the following design and functionality:
- The bottom vessel is where the water boils, which creates steam.
- The second/middle vessel has a centrifuge in the center which allows steam to pass through and up to the top level. It also collects the juice and has an opening with a hose attached where you can pour the juice out.
- The top vessel is basically a lidded strainer where the fruit sits. As the steam heats the fruit, the juices come out and drip into the lower holding pot.
A steam juicer sounded to us like a perfect tool for quickly processing elderberries (with stems still attached) into elderberry syrup. Only problem: we didn’t have one.
After a bit of product comparison, The Tyrant quickly remedied that problem and a new Cook N Home 11 quart steam juicer was ours.
Steam juicer: the easiest, fastest way to process elderberries
Before steam juicing elderberries, we cut off the large base stems that hold up the berry clusters. This allows for more room in the steam juicer and reduces the risk of cyanogenic glycosides being steamed out of the larger vegetative parts of the plant. (This is actually a very low initial risk since the stems have very low water content.)
Total time required to get everything set up and on the stove is about 2 minutes. 30 minutes later (including the time it takes the water to start boiling and creating steam) and you’ll have a chamber full of elderberry *juice.
(*Note: The extracted elderberry juice is too watery to be considered elderberry syrup. For our preferences, it then requires cooking down by about 40-50%, sweetening with a bit of stevia, plus boosting acidity levels with citric acid.)
Removing the same quantity of elderberries from the stems by hand would take us 2 hours, and then we’d still have to cook and strain them, which would take another 30 minutes. So with each batch of elderberries in our steam juicer, we put 2-4 hours of time back in our pocket depending on the starting quantity of berries (ranging from 1/2 – 1 gallon measured stems on).
So, if you’ve been wondering what’s the easiest and best way to process elderberries or quickly get elderberries off the stems, we can now confidently say that a steam juicer is the answer. Thanks social media friends!
How to process elderberries in a steam juicer
Find out how to use a steam juicer to process elderberries into juice and syrup, saving a huge amount of time and work.
- 1/2 gallon elderberries, measured with stems on (or maximum 1 gallon per session with a standard 11-quart steam juicer)
- 1/3 gallon water, poured into base of steam juicer
Remove thick primary base stems from elderberry clusters (optional but recommended). Then place elderberry clusters into top chamber of steam juicer.
Pour water into base of steam juicer and place on burner over high heat on stovetop.
Set timer for 30 minutes. (Once water reaches a bowl, it takes about 20-25 minutes for all the elderberry juice to be extracted.)
Remove steam juicer from heat. Pour elderberry juice into storage jars until ready to use for recipes. If making elderberry syrup (which is much more concentrated than juice), see link to recipe in article!
Most elderberry recipes use either elderberry juice or syrup as a foundation. However, sometimes you might need actual elderberries (with no stems) for a recipe.
In that case, a steam juicer wouldn’t be ideal. Instead, you’d need to either use the raw berry hand pulling method or the freezer method detailed earlier.
Regardless, thanks to our steam juicer, we’re now happy to say that our elderberry nightmares have disappeared. Henceforth, we will look forward to ripe elderberry season without a hint of dread!
Again, our pick was the Cook N Home 11 quart steam juicer which has a 5 star rating across thousands of reviews. It’s also priced lower than the competitors we considered. Thus far, it’s been worth its weight in gold — or elderberry syrup!
Other elderberry and elder flower articles you’ll love:
- How to grow elderberries and elder flowers organically
- Recipe: How to make elderberry syrup
- Recipe: Sparkling elderflower cordial
- Recipe: Raspberry-elderflower-honey sparkling cordial
- Recipe: Elder flower kombucha