My mother did not make elderberry jelly because she said that elderberries were poisonous. In spite of this, I enjoyed elderberry jelly sandwiches occasionally when I was a boy. My friends ate them and did not die in agony, so I figured that whatever their mothers did to the elderberries must have turned them into something that tasted good and would not kill me.
My mother and I were both right. From the reference collection in the local library, I learned that elderberry plants and the berries themselves do contain poison, though in small concentrations. However, I also learned that cooking elderberries destroys the traces of poison found in the raw fruit. And today, people claim that elderberries are good for you, since they contain antioxidants and are high in vitamin C. I am not suggesting that elderberry jelly is a health food, but it may be a little better for you than grape jelly.
Making elderberry jelly is easier than you might think. Although elderberries are tiny, they are actually quite easy to harvest. Elderberry bushes produce clusters of white flowers that turn into clusters of dark blue or purple berries about three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter. To make elderberry jelly, you pick a bucketful of clusters, wash the clusters and strip the berries from the stems into a saucepan.
The most difficult challenge is to find a good patch of elderberry bushes loaded with fruit. Elderberries grow wild in most of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, but my experience is that many of the best patches are closely watched by local jelly makers. You have to be quick to get your share. You need about three pounds of elderberry clusters.
Sal and Joe are selling produce from Roosterhaven at our local farmers market this year. The beautiful buckets of elderberries in their booth first caught my eye. We bought enough to go with some leftover juice frozen from last summer’s batch of jelly to make six jars of this hauntingly delicious addition to breakfast toast. That’s the lazy man’s way to do it, but the jelly tastes just as good.
Here is how to make it.
3 cups elderberry juice
1/4 cup cold water
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 box Sure-Jell fruit pectin
1/2 tsp. butter
4 1/2 cups sugar
Rinse the clusters of berries in cold water and strip the ripe berries into a three or four quart saucepan. Add about a quarter cup of water to the berries, cover the pan and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and crush the berries with a potato masher. Simmer the crushed berries for about fifteen minutes, stirring often.
Line a colander with several layers of dampened cheesecloth or a cotton tea towel and strain the juice from the berries. You will need three cups of juice. You can gently squeeze the pulp to extract more juice. If you don’t have quite enough juice, return the pulp to the pan, add a few tablespoons of water and bring the mixture back to a boil. Stir and simmer the pulp for a minutes or two, then strain the pulp a second time.
You can store the prepared juice in a quart jar in the refrigerator. When you are ready to make your jelly, start by measuring the sugar into a bowl and washing and sterilizing seven one cup jelly jars. Set the bowl of sugar aside.
Sterilize the jars by setting them upside down in a baking pan, adding about an inch of water and bringing the pan to a boil. Turn off the heat after two or three minutes and let the jars sit upside down until the jelly is nearly at the first boil. Place the jars upside down on a rack to drip dry.
Put a block of paraffin into a small saucepan over low heat to melt while you make the jelly.
Making the jelly if very simple. Put three cups of juice, the Sure-Jell, and a quarter cup of lemon juice into a four quart saucepan or Dutch oven. Bring the pan to a full boil over high heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Skim any foam that appears with a metal spoon as the juice comes to a boil.
When the juice reaches a full rolling boil (a boil that cannot be stirred down) stir in the sugar. Keep stirring while you bring the pan back to to another full rolling boil. Boil for one minute, stirring constantly.
Remove the pan from the heat. Skim off any more foam and turn the jars upright on a sheet of wax paper. Ladle the jelly into the jars, leaving a half inch at the top. Seal the jars with a thin layer of paraffin. Let the jelly cool completely and seal with a second thin layer of paraffin.
Cover the jars with lids, plastic wrap or fabric to keep out dust and store the jelly in a cool place away from direct sunlight.
NOTES: Many years ago we acquired a gravy ladle that looks like a soup spoon with a bent handle. It is the perfect tool for skimming foam from jams and jellies. If you can’t find one like it, use a soup spoon.
If you are nervous about eating jelly made from berries that are poisonous until they are cooked, think about all the foods we enjoy that share this distinction. Kidney beans are a good example. If they are not well cooked, the toxin they contain will make you sick. I prefer chili without beans, but like millions of Americans, I also appreciate a good chili con carne made with kidney beans.
A note about Roosterhaven. You will find the farm on Facebook. On their page, you’ll find photos of some good-looking roosters that may have inspired the name. Incidentally, besides elderberries, Sal and Joe grow some wonderful okra. We use it to make Toni’s Fried Okra.