Elderflowers and Making Cordial: All You Need To Know

Every summer, I make a batch of elderflower cordial and it has become a bit of a lovely summer tradition in our household. The delicate syrup diluted in some refreshing soda water really makes a summer day. Homemade elderflower cordial has become quite popular over the past few years during the elderflower season, and this year it feels like an activity designed for quarantine! Rather than sharing just a recipe for elderflower cordial, which is basically the River Cottage recipe without orange and citric acid, and after answering a few questions from a friend recently, I thought it might be more helpful to collate some of the extra tips and tricks that I’ve learned over a few years of cordial-making. I imagine that I’m not the only one to ask some of these questions at some point.

How do I know that I’ve definitely found elderflowers?

First of all, I will assume that you are collecting on public land or have any necessary permissions to pick your elderflowers. In terms of identification, it’s thankfully very easy! If you’re familiar with the smell of elderflower, then you’re not going to go far wrong. (If you aren’t familiar with the smell, then I might suggest that you try a commercial cordial or a friend’s batch before you make your own so that you know what you’re getting into!) The white flowers are tiny and grow in plate-like “umbels” from large bushes or sometimes trees. The leaves are made up of five or seven leaflets that grow opposite one another, with a single leaflet at the end. If you have this combination of flower umbels, leaf shape, and smell, then you’ve got elderflowers. Still, always check with multiple identification sources! And remember when gathering flowers, make sure you leave plenty on the tree for berries later in the year.

Is there an ideal time of day to pick elderflowers?

The perfect time to pick elderflowers is in the morning, after the dew has evaporated off, but before the sun heats up and brings out an unfavourable wee-like aroma. I wish I was kidding! It’s also not great to pick them on a rainy day as a lot of the lovely pollen that gives so much flavour will have been washed away. It’s worth looking out for bunches that have just bloomed before they start to go over as the aforementioned urine notes will develop over time. Look out for flowers that are completely white, with no brown or black dots starting to develop underneath, and use the flowers as soon as possible after picking. I’ve shared a couple of photos below for comparison.

How do I make elderflower cordial?

Like any syrup, you want to start by infusing as much flavour as possible into water. I pop about 25 elderflower heads and the zest (keep the juice for later in the recipe) of 2-3 unwaxed lemons* into a large non-metal bowl and chop the majority of the stems off the flowers as they’re not strictly edible (and don’t taste wonderful). Pour over 1.5 litres of boiling water and leave overnight to infuse. The next day, strain through a muslin cloth and heat the liquid in a saucepan with the lemon juice and 1kg of sugar. Simmer for a few minutes and then pour into sterilised bottles. See below for tips on sterilising bottles and for information on elderflower cordial shelf life.

*If you don’t have unwaxed lemons, or if you’re not sure, then just give your lemons a bit of a scrub before zesting which will get rid of most of the wax.

What is citric acid? Do I need to use it?

Citric acid is a flavour enhancer and preserving agent derived from citrus fruits. It’s often mentioned in elderflower cordial recipes for those purposes. To be honest with you, I don’t think it’s necessary. It’s not easy to get hold of, and if you’re using plenty of lemon juice in your recipe then your cordial should be getting all the citric acid that it needs. In my experience, the flavour is ok but not groundbreaking, and it hasn’t increased the longevity of my cordial by that much either.

How long will my cordial last? Can I make it last longer?

I would say that you should expect your cordial to last at least a month if kept refrigerated, possibly longer. I’ve seen recipes that suggest that it can keep up to a year if preserved properly, but unless they’re working in laboratory conditions, I don’t think that’s attainable for homemade cordial. Citric acid can be used as a preservative, but I’ve explained above why I don’t particularly use it. For me, the best method to have elderflower cordial long past the season, is to pour some into a plastic tub or an ice cube tray and freeze it. The plastic tub works for me as I can just scoop some out as and when I want some cordial – it doesn’t freeze completely solid because of the sugar content, so it’s nice and easy to portion out.

How do I sterilise bottles? Do I need to do it at all?

Yes, I would definitely encourage you to sterilise any bottles before pouring in your cordial. Not only is it intended to kill of any nasty bacteria, but heating the bottles is crucial when adding hot cordial anyway. If the bottles are too cold, then the difference in temperature may cause the glass to shatter. If you’re going to heat the bottles anyway, you might as well make sure they’re sterile too, and it’s quite easy really. If you have a dishwasher, then that will be the easiest way to sterilise bottles and the same goes for sterilising jars for jam-making. Alternatively, wash the bottles in soapy water before placing them in oven at 150°C until dry and soak the lids in boiling water. Be careful of the lid seal becoming too hot if you’re using a swing top bottle – I *may* have melted one in the past.

Can I compost the elderflowers after I have used them for cordial?

Unfortunately, it’s probably not wise to compost the elderflowers because of the lemon used in the mix. Citrus raises the acidity of compost heaps and can harm helpful worms that are important to the decomposition process. A little bit is probably not the end of the world, but for me I try to do everything I can to encourage worms and I know they wouldn’t thank me for it. What I’ve done recently instead of composting the flowers, is to add them to a batch of homemade kombucha to see if I can squeeze a bit more flavour before I ultimately have to get rid of them.

What can I do with elderflower cordial aside from just drinking it diluted in water?

So many things! Instead of water, why not dilute in prosecco, add some to a G&T, or mix with gin, a splash of apple juice and topped up with soda water to your liking. You could also use it as an alternative to St Germain elderflower liqueur in cocktail recipes. Aside from drinks, you can use it to make these lovely little Lemon & Elderflower Fairy Cakes or even drizzle it over pancakes. I like to mix with soda or juice and freeze into ice lolly moulds for a refreshing summer treat on a hot day, or pour a little over fresh strawberries instead of sugar.

I hope that this post answers some of your questions, and if you have any more then don’t hesitate to pop them into the comments, use this contact form, or reach out to me on Instagram @plotandlane, and I’ll try to answer and update this post as well.

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