Last Updated on February 22, 2023
Elderberry season is here! Wondering what to do with all those elderberries you gathered on your foraging expedition? Check out these fantastic uses for elderberries, whether you’ve got fresh, frozen, or dried.
DELICIOUS USES FOR ELDERBERRIES IN THE KITCHEN AND HOME APOTHECARY
As you probably already know, elderberries have long been a popular folk remedy for colds and flu, and several small studies of human subjects have found that elderberry can shorten the duration and severity of a cold or flu.
Elderberry is the first thing I reach for when I feel like I might be fighting off a virus, and often I never seem to actually come down with anything.
I’m not saying elderberry makes you virus-proof, but lab studies suggest that compounds in elderberries interfere with viral replication, so viral load may be lessened by consumption of elderberry. More research is needed to satisfy the stringent requirements for scientific validity, but that doesn’t mean elderberry doesn’t work either.
Adding moderate amounts of elderberry to our diets may help support our immune function and has other benefits as well. Elderberries are also one of the richest sources of anthocyanins, plant compounds known for their anti-inflammatory abilities, helping your body fight oxidative stress, which may lower disease risk. They’re the main reason elderberries are considered one of the top superfoods, along with also easy-to-forage black chokeberry. Here’s more on the health benefits of elderberries.
But health benefits aside, if you’ve tried elderberry syrup, then you know elderberries are absolutely delicious. Uses for elderberry are worth getting to know just for their yummy flavor, whether you’re working with fresh berries you foraged yourself or with dried ones you bought in bulk.
Because they taste so good and are so abundant in our area, I’ve also found plenty of other ways to use elderberries, as well as the elderflowers that precede them. Here’s more on how to use elderflower, which is wonderful in all sorts of recipes, from a simple elderflower tea to syrups, cocktails, and desserts.
To find out more about what research tells us about elderberry’s effect on health, expert growing advice, plus 62 delicious recipes for using elderberries and elderflowers, pick up a copy of my book, Everything Elderberry, available now. It involved months of research, dozens of interviews, and a ton of kitchen experiments. It contains information on elderberries and elderflowers you won’t find anywhere else.
USES FOR ELDERBERRY GO WAAAY BEYOND ELDERBERRY SYRUP!
Late summer is an exciting time for foragers, when the elderberries come in by the bucketful. If you’re new to foraging elderberries, please read this post on elderberry identification so you’re sure you have the right plant. There are some poisonous plants that some people mistake for elderberries, so it’s important you know what you’re doing before you start plucking berries from nearby bushes.
In addition to having plenty of elderberries for making homemade elderberry syrup, you’ll have loads left over for all sorts of fun kitchen projects.
Yes, elderberries are wonderful for soooooooo much more than syrup!
For instance, fresh elderberries can be used in muffins, pancakes, oatmeal, fruit crisps, pie, or jam. Elderberry syrup can be used to flavor gummies, smoothies, popsicles, and numerous delicious drinks. Read on for more details.
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT SOURCING ELDERBERRIES
One of the many, many things I learned about elderberries over the course of my research is that if you’re foraging your local elderberries in North America, you’re likely getting a different fruit than if you buy dried elderberries online. The dried ones are almost entirely imported from Europe, where the native variety is Sambucus nigra.
In North America the Sambucus variety we have is Sambucus canadensis, which research has found to be lower in the compounds that cause many people to label these berries “toxic.” If your stomach hasn’t been happy with the dried elderberries you’ve purchased, you may fare better with your local foraged berries. Here’s more on the persistent question, ‘Are elderberries poisonous?’ if you want to know more.
To the best of my knowledge, no one has done the same kind of analysis on the elderberries that grow in the west, Sambucus cerulea, so I can’t speak to the levels of these compounds in the berries you may find growing in the West. Foraging expert Samuel Thayer, however, reports that their flavor is far superior, so if you’re lucky enough to have cerulea growing near you, be sure to enjoy plenty of them fresh.
An additional word about flavor: The wild black elderberries growing in my area were not the most flavorful, and didn’t add much to the baked goods I used them in. Cooked into syrup and jam, however, they had all the rich deliciousness you’d expect.
You may find great berries growing wild near you, but if you don’t and you’re eager to have fresh elderberries at your disposal, I strongly recommend adding some to your edible landscape. The more readily available types known for better flavor include York and Bob Gordon, but there are many options available online worth checking out. Here are more details about the best elderberry varieties recommended by experts and detailed instructions on growing elderberries in your garden.
If you’d like to feel more confident foraging medicinal plants like elderberry, be sure to check out the Herbal Academy’s online foraging course, which is on sale right now. They have an array of herbalism courses worth checking out as well.
>> There are loads more medicinal plants to consider adding to your garden. Here’s more information on starting a medicinal herb garden if you’re interested in cultivating more homegrown remedies.
Here are sources for cuttings if you’re interested in planting your own:
USES FOR ELDERBERRY: HOW TO USE FRESH ELDERBERRIES
Elderberries are so easy to pick, you now likely have a giant bucket of them and are thinking, “Yikes! What do I do with all these??”
First of all, let’s save you some time de-stemming these little jewels. They’re a real pain to pick off with your fingers, and making sure you don’t get any pieces of stem mixed in is important, as stems are more likely to contain the compounds that can make you sick.
Many elderberry foragers suggest freezing the berries before destemming, but this method can result in more stem pieces getting mixed in, and it’s harder to tell the ripe berries apart from the less ripe ones. And if you’ve harvested a lot, room in the freezer can prove challenging unless you have plenty of space in a chest freezer.
One of the most efficient ways to destem elderberries is to rub berry clusters gently on hardware cloth over a bucket. I’ve also seen people just whack the clusters against the sides of a bucket, which should release only the ripest berries and leave everything else.
However you choose to destem, submerging them in water when you’re done should bring the bugs, unripe berries, and stem bits to the top, where you can skim them off easily.
Now that your berries are ready to use, let’s go over some options for what to do with elderberries.
Grab the downloadable guide to using elderberries safely and effectively by using the form here.
No fresh berries? You can make your own elderberry syrup from dried elderberries as well. It can be used medicinally or as a delicious add-in to drinks, smoothies, and many other recipes. Here’s my research-backed homemade elderberry syrup recipe.
Purchased dried elderberries can sometimes contain a decent amount of stem material, which you don’t want to eat. Be sure to sort through the berries you purchase and pull out pieces of stem and twig that may have gotten mixed in.
One of the best places to find high-quality herbal products is Mountain Rose Herbs. They carry dried elderberries and elderflowers, as well as extracts and many other useful herbs at competitive prices.
WHAT TO DO WITH ELDERBERRIES
1. Use Some Fresh Elderberries Now
Pop a cup or two of fresh berries into your next batch of pancakes, muffins or zucchini bread, bake them into oatmeal, or toss them into a fruit crisp or crumble. Elderberries pair really well with apple, peach, and rhubarb, adding a rich flavor to all kinds of fruit desserts.
This recipe for immune-supporting elderberry overnight oats uses elderberry syrup for flavor and can be topped with fresh elderberries.
Elderberry season is also the perfect time to make your first batch of fresh elderberry syrup, as the season change can often prove challenging to our immune systems. Syrup made from fresh elderberries skips the step of dehydrating, so more of their juice winds up in your syrup than if you use purchased dry berries. If you’re sensitive to the compounds in the dried elderberries or pre-made syrups you’ve bought, syrup made from fresh canadensis berries may sit better with you.
Most homemade elderberry syrups are meant to be stored in the refrigerator for a couple of months, so you don’t want to make more than you can use. For longer shelf life, you’ll need to add a lot more sweetener or some alcohol.
Here’s herbalist Tieraona Low Dog explaining how to make your own elderberry syrup.
Once you have a syrup, you can use it medicinally, or for all sorts of other delicious concoctions, like gummies, popsicles, cocktails, ice cream or sorbet, smoothies, or spritzers and teas. You’ll find recipes for all of these, plus wine, liqueur, sangria, kombucha, and lots more in my book, along with information on getting the most out of your elderberries, whether foraged or purchased dry.
2. Steep Elderberries in Vinegar or Alcohol to Preserve for Later Use
Tinctures extract different compounds from elderberries than simmering in water and they keep far longer. Allowing your berries to soak in alcohol (like high-proof vodka) for several weeks yields another medicinal option for your home apothecary. Here’s how to make a tincture from Herbal Academy.
You can also steep your berries in vinegar to make a delicious (and medicinal) elderberry vinegar. You can use any vinegar you prefer, and like a tincture, elderberry vinegar keeps a very long time. I love to use elderberry vinegar on salads, especially my go-to wild rice salad. It tastes fantastic while giving you a dose of elderberry.
Here’s how to make herbal vinegars.
Another easy option is something called an oxymel, a mix of honey and vinegar, for a more shelf-stable alternative to syrup. I think elderberry oxymel tastes a lot like balsamic vinegar and can be used anywhere you’d use balsamic. You can also take a spoonful of oxymel rather than syrup when you’re feeling a cold coming on.
Here’s how to make an oxymel.
If you’re new to the world of herbal remedies, Herbal Academy has several online courses worth checking out. Click the banner below to learn more. You might also enjoy some of these fantastic herbal medicine books.
There are plenty more herbs that may help support your immune system. Check out this post on immune-boosting herbs for some top picks from renowned herbalists.
3. Dry Some Elderberries to Use in Winter
Dry some for winter, when you’ll appreciate having the ability to whip up some immune-boosting elderberry tea or syrup whenever you feel like you need a little extra support against viruses. Elderberries may be dried on a dehydrator, or if you live in a dry climate on a drying screen, which will also be helpful for drying other herbs you harvest. Here’s what to know about dehydrating food.
4. Freeze Some to Use Fresh Later
You can freeze some of your elderberries as well, but research has shown that the compounds in elderberries degrade over time in the freezer. Aim to use them within the first three months if possible.
Frozen elderberries can be used as you would fresh berries in muffins, quick breads, crisps, and other baked goods. You could also use them for making syrup. I don’t recommend whole elderberries for smoothies, by the way. The seeds are plentiful and very noticeable in the finished product. Use syrup in your smoothies instead.
I hope you’re inspired by some of these uses for elderberry! What are your favorite uses for elderberries?
If you love foraging wild herbs, be sure to check out some of these other tasty options!
- Aronia Berry Recipes
- Wild Black Raspberries
- Pine Needle Tea
- Mulberry Leaf
Pin to save these uses for elderberries for later!
How to Use Elderberries disclaimer: I’m a health enthusiast, not a medical professional. Content on this website is intended for informational purposes only and is not meant to provide personalized medical advice. I draw on numerous health sources, some of which are linked above. Please consult them for more information and a licensed professional for personalized recommendations.
Susannah is a proud garden geek and energy nerd who loves healthy food and natural remedies. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth Living, Ensia, Northern Gardener, Sierra, and on numerous websites. Her first book, Everything Elderberry, released in September 2020 and has been a #1 new release in holistic medicine, naturopathy, herb gardening, and other categories. Find out more and grab your copy here.