Flexing the pecs: Elderberry jelly

The thing with elderberries is you have to get them before the birds do… this might mean going out every day and picking what’s there, half-preparing and refrigerating, and then maybe you’ll have enough gathered at the weekend to make a batch of something that worth the time and effort.


I didn’t wait that long and got stuck in to see what I could get out of a saucepan full of elderberry ‘heads’. I prepared the fruit as for elderberry gin: gently rinsing then picking off all the berries using a fork. This gave me a 1/3 saucepan-full. Then I made a juice as follows:

Above: 1 x saucepan of elderberry heads, washed and de-stalked (about 1/2 a large mixing bowl full); clean old tea towel or muslin at the ready, and a bowl to strain off elder berry juice; simmer berries for 15 minutes, crushing the berries at halftime, using a potato masher to gently split them and release their juices; tip berries into the muslin, and suspend somewhere to drip their juice for the next couple of hours into the bowl. Discard berries and use the juice immediately… or refrigerate in a sealed pot, or even freeze, until you are ready to make something with it!

Pectin, naturally found in fruit in variable amounts, is what will set your jam or jelly… something chemical happens at high heat, molecular strands change and bond differently (it’s explained much more scientifically here at www.pickyourown.org). Some fruits (eg lemons, plums and raspberries) have lots, so reach setting point quite quickly, others (like strawberries, pears and peaches) don’t have much at all.Elderberries are somewhere in the middle. Unless you want to boil your low-pectin fruits to smithereens, you’ll need to add extra. You can buy special ‘jam sugar’ that has it already in, and you can buy powdered pectin. I didn’t have either, and having stumbled upon a web post about making your own (see the full technique on www.pickyourown.org) I decided to have a go with some immature apples from the tree. I probably overdid the quantities for the amount of elderberries, and it ended up a little too stiff, but I reckon doubling the berry volume next time should crack it:

I selected a dozen immature sour apples (I could have used ones that had dropped off the tree, but they were a bit manky). Washed and then topped and tailed them, but kept the skins on. Covered with water and juice of half a lemon, then boiled for about half and hour. Left to strain through muslin for a couple of hours (don’t be tempted to squeeze it, or you’ll get a mush). Then use, refrigerate or freeze. 

I had about just over half of the elderberry juice suggested in this Waitrose elderberry jelly recipe, so I halved the amount of sugar they suggest… as you can see, they don’t have pectin in the list of their ingredients, and the comments beneath their recipe mention they had to boil the jelly for much longer than the readers liked. So I added all the apple pectin I’d made. For the small amount I was making I could have halved this, I think, as it did set quite firm. But then it only took 10 minutes boiling so kept a lot more of its nutrients. It also turned out sweeter than I like… I think the pectin replaces the need for so much sugar anyway, so next time I’ll add less.

All in all, my saucepan of elderberry heads made 1 jar (yes, just one!) plus a bit, which got used up pretty quick on some hot buttered crumpets… Yum! what an intense flavour!

I’ll definitely be collecting more elderberries at the weekend (the second batch of apple pectin is already made). I’ll take a ladder with me this time… then I just might get enough for two jars!


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