Regular Food in Jars contributor Alex Jones has stopped by (on her birthday! Happy day, Alex!) to show us how to make elderflower cordial with fresh, foraged elderflower blossoms. Read on to see how easy it is to make your own batch! – Marisa
As an apartment-dweller who loves plants, I’m lucky to live in a neighborhood rich in community garden spaces. I can count a dozen community gardens less than a mile from my home in West Philly; I currently tend plots in three of them.
The garden I’ve been with the longest is one of the oldest in the neighborhood, built on the site of a demolished apartment building down the block from where I live. It’s been around for a few decades, and the common spaces have been planted with perennial fruit trees and shrubs that have had lots of time to establish.
While the peaches, plums, and figs never seem to ripen, our sour cherry tree, gooseberry bush, and kiwi berry vines are prolific. We also boast a specimen of one of the most exciting (to me) perennial fruits: An elderberry bush.
While elderberries contain powerful medicine, the birds end up getting most of the berries just before they ripen in our garden. So rather than competing with them for a pint of berries that will make just a half-cup of elderberry syrup, I focus on the elderflowers, which typically bloom in mid-May, and make a batch of elderflower cordial.
If you’ve ever tasted a cocktail made with St. Germain liqueur, you know the sweet, floral aroma of elderflower. While the flavor in most preparations is mild, it goes beautifully with citrus, and a sweet-tart cordial is my favorite way to preserve this ephemeral, spring-into-summer crop.
Unfortunately, due to the extreme perishability of these flowers — which must be used within a few hours of harvest before they begin to brown and lose their aroma — it’s next to impossible to purchase them at a grocer or farmer’s market.
For this reason, I recommend planting your own (or a few, which will help them grow more vigorously) if possible. You can also look for buds or flowers in early May near streams, river beds, ponds, or lakes that get good sun and are far from roads, highways, and other sources of potential contamination.
If you’re foraging for elderflowers, I recommend learning how to identify the plant properly from an expert; you want black or European elderberries, Sambucus nigra, not these potentially deadly lookalikes. You may also want to ask around in your neighborhood to see if anyone has an elderberry plant growing in their yard from which you can harvest in exchange for some finished elderflower cordial.
It’s best to harvest elderflowers in the late morning, after morning dew has evaporated but before they’ve lost their aroma in the heat of the day. Bring a large paper bag and scissors, and snip flower heads with open blooms into the bag (this will help to catch the aromatic pollen). It’s ok if there are a few unopened buds on the heads. Avoid harvesting too much from any one plant.
Next, trim your blooms. The stems and leaves of elderberry bushes contain toxic compounds, so some recipes recommend trimming off the blooms with as little of the green stem as possible. However, others I’ve read that hark back to traditional British recipes for elderflower cordial recommend placing whole flower heads, including stems, in the cordial mixture to steep. For this reason, I try my best to trim off the blooms with as little stem as possible, but I don’t stress too much about it.
Once you’re procured and trimmed your elderflowers, this cordial is incredibly simple to make. Combine the flowers with the zest and juice of a lemon, a little citric acid to preserve, and simple syrup. Cover and let sit at room temperature for three days. Strain the mixture through cheesecloth, then bottle and enjoy. Store unused elderflower cordial in the refrigerator.
The finished product is bright and lemony with a floral, perfumed quality from the elderflowers. My favorite way to use it is in a cocktail with gin, seltzer, a dash of bitters, and a lemon wedge on a warm spring day, ideally with the season’s first strawberries or a springtime cheese board. Simply leave out the gin and bitters for an equally delicious, alcohol-free drink.
Do you have access to elderflower where you live? If so, what have you made with it? If you don’t, I hope I’ve inspired you to plant this wonderful perennial in your yard. Share with us in the comments!
How to Make Elderflower Cordial
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 lemon juiced and zested
- 1/2 teaspoon citric acid available online or from many South Asian grocers
- 12-15 large elderflower heads
- Harvest the elderflower heads, ideally in late morning. Look for those with mostly if not all open buds; skip any with browning blooms. Snip the heads directly into a clean paper bag. Get them home and process as soon as possible or within a few hours to avoid losing the aroma.
- Using scissors, trim the elderflowers from the heads, removing as much green stem as possible from the blossoms. Place the flowers into a medium glass bowl. Discard stems.
- In a small saucepan, combine water and sugar. Bring to a boil and stir so that all sugar is dissolved. Allow to cool to room temperature.
- While the simple syrup is cooling, scrub, dry, and zest the lemon, then add the zest to the bowl with the flowers. Juice the lemon and add to the flower mixture, then add the citric acid.
- Once the syrup has cooled, pour it over the flower mixture and give it a gentle stir.
- Cover the bowl tightly with a dish towel so that no insects, debris, or other contaminants can get into it. Let steep at room temperature for three days.
- By the third day, the elderflowers will have begun to brown and the aroma should be powerful. Place cheesecloth into a fine mesh strainer and position the strainer over a medium bowl. Pour the elderflower mixture through the strainer, taking care to squeeze out every last bit of cordial from the cheesecloth.
- Bottle and enjoy. Refrigerate unused cordial for up to a month.