Elderflower Cordial (for Elderberry Lemonade!)

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This is the time of year that native elderberries (Sambucus canadensis) are in full bloom along our mountain highways and riverbanks. Many of you probably know this shrubs for its berries, which are used in juice, pies, and even wine, but I prefer the FLOWERS for my culinary pursuits.

Native elderberry in bloom among other roadside plants.

Native elderberry in bloom among other roadside plants.

A closer look: elderberry flower cluster and immature berries in the background

A closer look: elderberry flower cluster and immature berries in the background

I love elderberry flowers so much that I chose several years ago to purposefully grow them in our landscape, ordering three bare root plants of a Danish variety called Samdal from Nourse Farms (I’ve ordered all of my bare root plants from this nursery by the way — I can’t recommend them enough!). This cultivated variety of elderberry (also Sambucus nigra) begins flowering well over a month earlier than our native elderberries, allowing me to extend the season for harvesting elderberry blooms. I’ll mention that if you also want berries from this cultivar, you’ll need to purchase a cross-pollinator (Nourse Farms sells a variety called Samyl for this purpose). Since I was growing for flowers at the time, I didn’t bother with planting a cross-pollinator, but I may next spring since there are so many blooms to spare.

Much of the elderberry plant is toxic (the leaves and unripe berries contain cyanogenic glycosides that get converted to cyanide upon ingestion), but the flowers and ripe berries have been used for culinary and medicinal purposes for years. Europeans considered elderberry a “holy tree” in the Middle Ages, and it was highly prized by Native Americans here in the United States. The flowers and berries have long been used in medicinal tonics, and modern medicine is now exploring its properties; recent double-blind placebo-controlled studies (referenced here and here) indicate that elderberry extract consumption can shorten the duration of influenza infection by several days!

With that last property in mind, here is a delicious way that you can preserve elderberry now so that you have it for the winter flu season. That is, if you can avoid the temptation to consume it all now as a refreshing summer drink!

 

Elderflower Cordial

Elderberry blossoms are among the most fragrant of flowering shrubs; I can smell our shrubs blooming from well over 100 feet away as I approach our yard from my walk home from work. They are also extremely prolific producers of pollen, so much so that many sources believe this plant to be wind-pollinated (though it attracts many types of native bees, I don’t see as many of our honeybees working the blooms). In making this cordial, you’ll be combining these wonderful properties with sugar and a little lemon, creating a elderberry flower-infused simple syrup that you can then dilute to your preference as a summer drink, in summer cocktails, or as a substitute sweetener in your favorite baked goods.

You’ll need:

  • 30-60 elderberry flower clusters
  • 7 cups water
  • 4 lbs sugar
  • 3 organic lemons
  • cheesecloth or mesh strainer

To make this elderberry flower syrup, collect 30-60 clusters of elderberry blossoms. I prefer an intense elderflower flavor, so I use the larger amount, especially when using Samdal elderberries, which have slightly smaller-sized clusters than our native elderberries. Much of the flavor in this cordial comes from nectar and pollen, so collect flowers on a sunny day, not immediately after a rain, and choose flowers that aren’t past their prime. Note: Please consult a field guide if you are not familiar with elderberry; poison hemlock (the famed plant which killed Socrates) produces flower clusters that can resemble elderberry, and commonly grows in the same habitat.

Although Samdal elderberry flower clusters are smaller, they still approach the size of dinner plates.

Although Samdal elderberry flower clusters are smaller, they still approach the size of dinner plates.

All the flowers we need to make a big batch of Elderflower Cordial.

All the flowers we need to make a big batch of Elderflower Cordial.

 

DO NOT rinse the flowers under water after harvesting — you’ll wash away that precious pollen and nectar. Simply shake the flower heads lightly to dislodge any bugs.

Next, create a simple syrup of water. I simply bring 7 cups of water (1.75 quarts) to boil on the stove, remove it from the burner, and then add a 4 lb bag of sugar, stirring until it is dissolved completely. Allow the simple syrup to cool for a while (elderberry flowers added to hot liquid will turn an unappetizing brown).

Once the simple syrup has cooled to the point you hold your hand on the side of the pot without getting uncomfortable, begin picking the flowers into the syrup. Try to remove as much of the larger stems as you can, but don’t think you have to pick off each flower one-by-one — each cluster is made up of smaller clusters, and the tiny stems that hold those together left in the mix won’t contribute any significant amount of toxin. (If all this talk about elderberry toxins makes you nervous, consider that there have been no case reports of deaths from elderberry poisoning in the US, and in the few poisonings reported, all patients consumed a fair amount of berries from the related Mexican elderberry and experienced full recovery).

This cordial is a brilliant yellow, thanks to the abundant pollen produced by the elderberry flowers (as seen on my hands after picking blossoms into syrup).

This cordial is a brilliant yellow, thanks to the abundant pollen produced by the elderberry flowers (as seen on my hands after picking blossoms into syrup).

 

Next, slice thin 3 organic lemons, and add to the syrup.

Place the elderflower syrup mixture into the refrigerator, and leave it there to steep for 48 hours, stirring occasionally. Note: To save fridge space, I ladled the mixture into cleaned and sterilized quart jars.

Elderflower cordial after 2 days of steeping in the fridge.

Elderflower cordial after 2 days of steeping in the fridge.

 

After two days in the fridge, strain the syrup through cheesecloth into cleaned and sterilized jars. Keep refrigerated for use over the next few weeks (longer than 6 weeks, and the mixture may begin to ferment). Note: Some recipes for elderflower cordial call for the addition of citric acid to prevent fermentation; as my simple syrup contains a little more sugar than most, I haven’t found the citric acid to be necessary. If you like the added tartness of citric acid, or are nervous about syrup shelf longevity, add 2 Tablespoons of citric acid to the mixture (you can find it in the canning supplies section of many grocery stores).

When it comes to preserving longer than a month, I have only tried freezing the syrup, but longer term storage may be possible via canning. I have yet to come across a successful guide to this, by the way (but have heard mention of jars that exploded from fermenting syrup so I’m leary). If you have successfully canned elderflower cordial, I would love to hear about it! Until then, I’m going to be following the Ball Blue Book recommendation for preserving simple syrups, and report back to you later after the jars have spent a full year in the pantry.

 

To make Elderberry Lemonade (our favorite use!), mix about 3-4 Tablespoons of the elderflower cordial with a pint of water (or adjust to your preference for sweetness). For a refreshing summer cocktail, try adding  1 Tablespoon to tonic water along with your favorite alcohol or white wine.

 

Other Culinary Uses for Elderberry Flowers

Elderberry Pancakes

Immediately after pouring pancake batter onto a hot skillet, invert an elderberry flower cluster into the batter and snip off the stems with scissors (King Arthur Flour has a great gluten-free pancake recipe here, and their packaged GF mix is also excellent). Serve with fruit and maple syrup (or the elderflower cordial!).

Elderberry flower cluster pressed into pancake batter and the stems snipped away.

Elderberry flower cluster pressed into pancake batter and the stems snipped away.

I'll admit that elderberry pancakes don't look very pretty, but their taste is amazing!

I’ll admit that elderberry pancakes don’t look very pretty, but their taste is amazing!

Use Elderberry Flowers as Garnishes

Dainty elderberry flowers make beautiful edible decorations. The possibilities are limitless!

Gluten free tarts with persimmon curd and mulberry preserves, garnished with elderberry flowers. I was proud to take these to the Central Appalachian Food Summit at Hindman Settlement School back in May.

Gluten free tarts with persimmon curd and mulberry preserves, garnished with elderberry flowers. I was proud to take these to the Appalachian Food Summit at Hindman Settlement School back in May, which you can learn more about from The Daily Yonder or in this segment from Making Connections.

 

Do you have other uses for elderberry flowers? Share them here!

 

 

 

 

 

8 Comments

  1. Texan

    June 20, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    My friend just gave me four elderberry bushes, hers are springing up babies and she shared some with me! I have to build wire cages to go in the ground before I can plant them as the moles grrrrr love their roots! I will wait now till fall as well so its cooler for them. I agree with you on Nourse, I have ordered from them and everything was top quality. I will have to try your elderberry cordial recipe!

    • Ma Hubbard

      June 22, 2014 at 9:11 pm

      Great friend!!! And thanks for mentioning your experience with Nourse — I like to hear that other people are also pleased with the companies I recommend. Cheers!

  2. Thistlehair Farm CNG

    June 20, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    Always looking for new ideas. Love this. Will have to look further into it and use it sometime at my little cottage education center here on the farm.

  3. imkarenarnettK

    June 22, 2014 at 9:39 am

    I’m really pleased with the flavor of the cordial. Since much of the flavor is left in the strained flowers, I recommend squeezing or pressing the cheesecloth to extract as much of the liquid as possible. Last year I tried making a wild yeast fermented beverage with elderflowers but it just turned out very yeasty tasting. This is way better.

    • Ma Hubbard

      June 22, 2014 at 9:08 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it, Karen. You are right — I didn’t describe it in the post, but I also lightly squeezed my cheesecloth to help extract those last precious and concentrated drops of elderberry goodness. Thank you!

  4. Lisa from Iroquois

    June 25, 2014 at 11:32 am

    i had never heard I would need a cross pollinator for my elderberry. Would two trees of the same type work?

    • Ma Hubbard

      June 25, 2014 at 5:27 pm

      Lisa, elderberries are partially self-fertile, but for MAXIMUM production of berries a pollinator of a different cultivar is needed. If you are growing native elderberry, it is helpful to have at least one plant that is from a different area than from which you started the majority of your plants (genetic diversity is key), but if you are growing some of the cultivated forms of elderberry, the nursery from which you buy your plants will be able to recommend a good cross-pollinating cultivar.

  5. Gino Palmeri

    July 9, 2014 at 11:21 pm

    The English recipe I’m trying says to set the flower/lemon/sugar mixture sit for 2-3 days before refrigerating. I think this makes the citric acid all the more important. I can’t wait to try my first batch tomorrow!