The last day of March dawned clear and breezy, and the grass all around was spotted yellow. The day was perfect for picking dandelions.
Ever since I was twelve years old, when I read Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, I’d thought about making the mysterious brew. Dandelions barely smell, to my nose, and what aroma they have seems more grassy than floral. The flower petals fortunately lack the bitterness of the rest of the plant, but they also lack much flavor at all. Yet apparently dandelion wine was once quite popular, at least among British and North American writers on country life in the early to mid-twentieth century.
Dandelion wine—“the words were summer on the tongue,” Bradbury says. But what does the stuff taste like? One writer says sherry; another says the wine resembles whiskey, especially if you include the green parts of the flower and age the wine well. A North Dakota everything-but-grape winery says its dandelion wine is like “a cross between a light chardonnay and corn on the cob.” I could order the wine from North Dakota, but I wouldn’t know how it was made. I needed to make my own from a traditional recipe to know how dandelion wine ought to taste.
Often I’d been inspired to make dandelion wine too late in the year, when the yellow flowers spotting the grass weren’t dandelions at all but their less edible look-alikes, cat’s ear and sow thistle. One year my husband and I started picking those flowers and stopped only when our small daughter pointed out the leaves. Dandelion leaves really do look like dents de lion, or as least as you might imagine lion’s teeth to look, if lions had green teeth. And the leaves aren’t the least bit prickly or furry; they’re smooth and thin, and they look good to eat–as they are, if you like very bitter greens. In late March, though, I didn’t need to check the foliage; all the yellow flowers in the orchard and vegetable garden were dandelions.
I harvested the flowers as instructed by several old books: With one hand, snap off a head. With the other hand, pinch off the bracts along with any remains of the stem, which will be oozing bitter white sap, and as much of the base of the flower and the green calyx as come away easily. Drop the rest into a bucket. With the biggest flowers, I was sometimes able to pull away all the petals in one pinch and leave the rest of the flower behind.
Before I could pick the flower, though, I’d often have to pick off a bug. A spotted cucumber beetle, looking like a slightly elongated lady bug spotted black on yellow or yellow-green instead of red, rested on every third to fourth dandelion. Gluttons for bitterness, the beetles were enjoying dandelions as a starter course while waiting to feast on my cucumbers, melons, squash, and beans come summer. I pinched each beetle that didn’t get away—fortunately, they’re slow in cool weather–and wiped my fingers on the damp grass to avoid adding bitter beetle juice to my brew.
Despite the extra time devoted to pest control, in an hour and a half I’d harvested a gallon of dandelion blossoms. In the kitchen, I boiled a gallon of water in a stockpot and stirred in the flowers. Then I left the pot sitting on the kitchen counter for three days, and stirred the mixture once a day. It smelled mildly musty.
At this point old recipes vary somewhat. Since dandelion flowers aren’t sweet, the most important ingredient to add is sugar. Recipes often call for honey, Demerara sugar, malt sugar, raisins, or some combination of these. Reluctant to risk wasting expensive bought sugar or my home-produced honey or raisins, I added three pounds of ordinary white sugar. “To improve the flavor” (admits Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Herbs), you next add citrus, usually ginger, and often another spice or two. I was wary of overpowering whatever flavor the dandelions might prove to possess, so I used the thinly peeled rind and the juice of just one orange and one lemon, plus an ounce of grated fresh ginger.
I stirred the mixture together, brought it to a boil, and let it boil gently for 20 minutes. Then I let it cool to lukewarm and poured it into a scalded food-grade plastic bucket. The old books say to set a piece of rye bread on top and spread yeast of an unspecified sort on top. Instead I stirred half an envelope of wine yeast into a quarter-cup of warm water and stirred the mixture into the bucket. I set a lid loosely on top and put the bucket in a warm closet.
Yesterday my husband sniffed the wine and assured me that fermentation was under way, so today I strained the bubbling liquid through a coarsely woven nylon jelly bag, poured the wine into a gallon glass jug, and plugged the jug with a waterlock. Squeezing the bag turned the liquid yellow, though the color may settle out along with the fine solids. I had about a pint left over after I filled the jug, so I put it into the fridge for later, but first I had a little taste. The new wine isn’t bitter or medicinal at all, but pleasantly sweet, citrusy, and a little gingery.
When the wine in the jug has finished fermenting, I’ll bottle it. After that, Euell Gibbons tells me in Stalking the Wild Asparagus, I mustn’t touch it until Christmas. Then I’ll tell you what I think of dandelion wine. Will it uphold the dandelion’s reputation as a diuretic, as revealed by its modern French name, pissenlit (“piss in the bed”)? Will it fortify my blood, as dandelions are also supposed to do? Maybe one taste will make me exclaim, like the boy in Bradbury’s book, “I’m a fire-eater! Whoosh!”
I’ll let you know what happens.
15 thoughts on “My First Dandelion Wine”
I love reading about these type of experiments, knowing full well I won’t have the patience to try–though I certainly have the dandelions! I did attempt your violet syrup, but after picking my two cups of violets, I discarded the steeped concoction. It had no appealing fragrance, instead more of a spinach aroma. I did remove the stems, but should I have removed everything but the petals?
That’s too bad. Are you sure you were using Viola odorata, sweet violet? With little purple flowers that smelled sweet before you picked them? I just went outside to eat a few, though they were shriveled. The flavor seems to be concentrated in the center of each flower, where the seed pods are. The calyx seems to be more spicy than sweet, but separating the calyx from the rest of the flower would be difficult. Including the calyx should do no harm.
It is so hard to distinguish V. odorata and V. cucullata, and in my suburban lawn I just assumed I was going to have the introduced one. Guess I should have done a thorough smell test!
Either I have the native species or a cross, based on this interesting article:
Oh well, at least they make my lawn look nice!
That’s an interesting article, though I’m not sure it’s the one you intended to post a link to, since it came from Washington State and since V. cucullata, according to http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=VICU, grows only in eastern North America. But thanks for letting me know about this pretty blue flower that looks much like V. odorata but lacks the sweet-violet aroma.
Yes, I meant the promiscuity of the species. I am in midatlantic so likely have C. cuculatta. Looking forward to berry season starting here soon so I continue trying your recipes!
Thank you! We’ve been wanting to make some homemade wine and you’ve inspired us to try this!!
Thought to make some dandelion syrup the other day. Dandelion flowers, cover with water, boil, reduce, simmer 20-30 minutes, drain, add sugar to make syrup. But after tasting the initial stock after draining I thought it tasted like bitter-ish water that would not really improve with sugar or honey or, finally, not be as charming as the concept of dandelion syrup on my pancakes sounded when it was first suggested to me. So out the water went. Fool hearty to try? Nah. But not exactly kismet.
Hope to share a bit of that wine with you in december though.
Today is July 30, 2012, just wondering if you have tried a bottle yet. I am very curious. I want to know also how gingery it came out if at all in the end? I have been wanting to make it but have never tried it 🙂
Thank you so much for your wonderful post too 🙂
Tiffany, thank you for reminding me to report on the outcome of this experiment. The wine is sweet, and therefore best chilled, but delicious. It looks like sauvignon blanc. The ginger flavor is subtle. The citrus seems an essential addition.
I, too, was always fascinated by the thought of Dandelion Wine thanks to Mr. Bradbury. Last year I made my first gallon using a recipe from The Forgotten Skills of Cooking by Darina Allen. I used Cote de Blanc yeast, sugar, orange zest and juice and sugar. It turned out pretty darn strong, but wonderful! A friend described the taste as Bosc pear-like with citrus, but I don’t think that even comes close to the deliciousness of this wine…I made 3 gallons this year!
Have not made dandelion wine myself (with my mother) since the early to mid 70’s. Spending time with attentive handling of the flower is important as “contamination” will add the taste you pickup on your hands from weeding the garden, except it will be in the wine. To me, dandelion wine tastes like laying in a meadow on a cool summer day finding adventures in the fluffy white clouds as they pass by.
John, that’s a lovely description!
I’m wondering how your wine tasted that Christmas? I saved this article a few years ago, and revisited to find out how your dandelion wine aged. I tried making the very same thing, and this year will be my third year to make the same. I followed your notes, along with Jack Keller’s. Last year I tried Autumn Olive, and it is still working in the jugs. Regards.
Linda,it looks like I made that wine in 2011, forgot to write about it the following Christmas, and had this to say the following July: “The wine is sweet, and therefore best chilled, but delicious. It looks like sauvignon blanc. The ginger flavor is subtle. The citrus seems an essential addition.” I don’t remember more, and I have not made dandelion wine since; I guess it was too much trouble. But it might not be too late for this year! I’ll check out the prospects this weekend.
Please tell me how your dandelion wine has turned out, and aged. And I would love to hear about the autumn olive!