Wild Ideas: Autumn Olive

A few weeks ago the dogs and I were out at the apple trees in the back field when I noticed Primrose eating tiny red berries that had spots on them.

I was concerned because normally small round red berries = bad. At least, that’s how I was raised. So I came in the house (oddly calmly, I think at this point I just expect things like this from her sweet little face) and tried to figure out if little miss trouble maker had just poisoned herself. After a bunch of googling around I found out the berries were called Autumn Olives.

Not only are the berries not poisonous to either dogs or humans (or cats and horses apparently), they are actually a superfood secret and they make very good juice, jam and fruit leather. Excuse me?! Say what?! I’ve had a zero effort harvest in my backyard for five years and I never knew about it? Let me clarify that these, despite the name, are not olives. Rather, they are a tart berry filled with lycopene (cancer fighting) and antioxidants. They have pits but I haven’t had a problem just eating them. It turns out Autumn Olives are an invasive species in North America, but as I figure it invasive can simply mean opportunistic. I’m into permaculture and if it’s growing wild, and I can harvest it, why not? It’s the same reason I made dandelion syrup this spring, wild stuffed grape leaves this summer and harvested wild blackberries and raspberries.

According to multiple sources on the internet the berries get ripe best in cool weather, and even when they seem ready they normally aren’t until the end of September to mid-October. I found them around the beginning of September and let me tell you with how much anticipation I’ve been waiting for them to be ready to harvest: a ton. Thursday was the day. I went out, tasted a berry and it was still tart but not painfully so. It was, dare I say, tasty. I knew the birds would be out to get these soon so I got my big tin pail and walked out to gather about 5lbs of berries per a jam recipe I found.

Here’s a few tips on harvesting the berries:

  • Put the pail below each stem and then gently roll the berries off of their stems with your fingers. If they don’t come off easily don’t force them. Ripe berries will easily roll off.  The juice of these comes out easily as well, gentle gentle gentle.
  • You will get spiders and other creatures from the plant in your berries. That’s harvesting for you. I try and pick them out with care because I know they are beneficial to the plant life.
  • About a 1/4 of a five gallon bucket hit about 5lbs for me.
  • Share your harvest. In other words: these are wild. Other animals besides you eat them too. Don’t take them all. I took a very small portion of what was there and left a good amount in each area I did harvest from. I didn’t do the work to grow them, and I don’t think it’s really my right to wipe everything clean and leave the birds and other animals with nothing. Responsible harvesting high fives all around.

On Thursday I came in, rinsed the berries, and plucked all the little stems out of them. My water was pretty dirty only because my bucket had some dried dirt it in before I started. Next time I will definitely use a clean bucket. It will significantly cut the rinsing steps down.

On Friday I knew it was time to turn it into jam, or at least that was my intention. After boiling the berries down for about 20 minutes, in order to make them easier to pit through a food mill, I realized this stuff would be great as a fruit butter.

I boiled berries on the front burner so I could mill them, and then added the puree to the back burner to cook down.

On the other side of the stove I had the jars sterilizing and the tops and lids slightly simmering.

The entire time I was doing this and experimenting with sugar/pectin/lemon, I was video chatting with Lauren over at Filing Jointly. Let me tell you something about Lauren—she’s great. She also thinks she awkward and she’s not. I feel like a lot of people who blog feel like they are awkward in person and more dynamic online. I even feel like this. I know I’m awkward, but I embrace it. Have you seen the video of me making spaghetti sauce? Lauren can probably testify to my a.) talkative nature and b.) awkward movements. I can testify to her awesomeness. Also, you all should encourage her to write about the pig farm story. It’s great.

That said, she pretty much just watched this process live. There really isn’t much of recipe but I’ll give a general breakdown. It’s a pretty typical fruit butter recipe I’d say. When it sets up it will look like a jam from the outside, but once you open it give it a quick stir and it quickly becomes butter consistency and nothing like jam.

Autumn Olive Butter Recipe

Remember, this is a “more or less” recipe. I’ve made jam before so I just sort of winged this and knew it would either be butter or jam, with my hope being for a soft butter/spread. Mine became butter because I was stingy on the pectin, and the mash is already very butter like on it’s own. You can easily make a small batch of this by just milling your berries, adding a little sweetner and moving on. The recipe below is for canning it, which requires more sugar and some citrus to be safe. I also realized it takes a TON of sugar to make it sweet once you add more than a tablespoon of lemon juice, I had added two and it was harshly tart. Next time I may just stick with less lemon juice, and plain sugar.

  • 8 to 9 or so cups berry mash (food mill to remove pits)
  • Few teaspoons of lemon juice. Be careful and add slow, the berries are very tart. The more lemon you add, the more sugar you need to add to offset it. You need a certain amount of citrus though, especially if you’re water bathing. A professional will have more advice than me on this, but I always do it as a precaution.
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • Few tablespoons powder pectin. I used ball and some new kind. I really recommend sure jell if you want this to be more like a jam. Follow the directions on your own pectin for best results.

Follow proper procedures to making fruit butter and for canning per the National Center for Home Food Preservation. Butter recipes for canning can be found lots of places like Balls Complete Book of Home Preservation. Process according to your altitude. I boiled the fruit until it coated my spoon and came off in a sheet and processed once it reached a rolling boil for about 10-15 minutes. I’m not a professional canner and I don’t want to give you information that may be considered inaccurate because of botulism and other goodies that can grow if not preserved appropriately and will make you very sick, so please please please consult with the National Center if you don’t know how to can, or need more accurate instructions. 

Saving Autumn Olives For Fruit Smoothies

When you mill autumn olives to remove the pits, the mash will look an awful lot like a smoothie in consistency. The next day when it sets it will feel like a firm pudding, or as my childhood memories remind me – Nickelodeons Gak. Given how good these berries are for you, and the natural consistency of their mash, I am going to process more of these and freeze them into ice cube trays. I’ll then vacuum seal the frozen berry mash cubes into bags with about 4-5 in each bag. I’ll use these in place of ice cubes when I make smoothies.

Autumn Olive Frozen Fruit Butter

Given the natural smoothie butter consistency of the mash, it makes perfectly good sense to me that if the mash freezes and thaws well, I could easily thaw one or two cubes of mash and mix it with a little maple syrup to make a really nice spread for toast. I’m interested in testing this method with the cubes vacuum sealed to protect against freezer burn, but I’m glad I preserved a batch too.

Autumn Olive Cake Topping

This sounds ridiculous but it is *so darn good*. I recently made a banana molasses spice cake and man oh man, the butter I made and preserved is ridiculous with it. Not only is it super tasty, it sits and holds really well. This would make a great spread in between layers because it will soak into the cake without totally soaking in. I wouldn’t use it on the sides because it would slip off. I’m sure the fresh mash could be doctored into a stiff frosting, but lets face it that is way out of my jurisdiction as I’m a pantry baker at best.

My final opinion…

Make it. Eat it. Love it. I think I love the mash best on it’s own with just a little sweetner, if I’m being entirely honest. I just don’t like taking something so healthy for you and ruining it with so much sugar. I bet I could make it with a lot less sugar if I upped the pectin. That might be the next trial. That doesn’t mean I won’t lick clean every jar I preserved already though. I will. Oh, I will.

xo,

Heather

P.S. Winnie was eating rearing off the ground and jumping for the berries her nose deemed best. Good God, I love these dogs.