To Pectin or Not to Pectin

Woe is the first-time jam maker seduced by the new fruits of summer, most of which are without the secret ingredient that helps a jam gel. Pectin, a naturally occurring agent, is low or nonexistent in most berries and cherries, so the early days of summer, when jammers are at the stove, taunt and toy with us. Any jam made with low-pectin fruit is difficult to set without added pectin. And that is where the rubber hits the road. Literally. Cooked too long, jam becomes rubbery and fruit is glacéed, not preserved. Too little cooking results in fruit floating at the top of the jam, a syrupy consistency, and, sometimes, a shorter life.

Pectin is what makes jelly and jams gain structure and gel. There are several commercial options available: powdered, liquid, low-sugar, and no-sugar, as well as pectin activated by calcium chloride. Look for these in the grocery store, lurking on the shelf above the corn starch in the baking aisle. Commercial pectin is derived from citrus rinds and seeds as well as apple peelings and cores.

Traditional pectin packets require copious amounts of sugar to bolster their gelling. All that sugar makes a very sweet jam and also guarantees a big batch.  It is traditional pectin that perpetuates the assumption that all canning must involve dozens of jars.

When health concerns about vast quantities of sugar in our diet first surfaced, we learned it has been added to every imaginable processed food. The pectin companies responded by developing low- and no-sugar versions, many require sugar-free fruit juices (apple or grape) to activate them. In early 2000s, Pomona-brand pectin reinvigorated a method calling for little or no sugar but requiring calcium chloride to boost the gelling action. I understand the value of commercial pectin and use it in a couple of instances—making preserves out of foods that have no pectin (like herb jellies) or foods that have very low pectin (like pepper jelly), but for the most part, I prefer the flexibility that comes from making jam with my own pectin, or easy substitutes like grated apple and kiwi—even at the risk of inconsistent gelling. The benefit of commercial pectin is consistency.

The single benefit of making preserves without commercial pectin is the ability to macerate fruits and develop flavor. Commercial pectins call for the fruit to be mixed and heated to boiling with the pectin, after which the sugar is added.

Many fruits make a suitable gel without any  pectin at all. In her 2002 book Mes Confitures, Christine Ferber was the first to reconnect with Escoffier’s method for confiture, macerating the fruit with sugar and flavorings, then straining the mixture and cooking the syrup to what, candy-making terms, is called the softball stage (220°F/104°C). The fruit is returned to the hot syrup and, when suitably suffused, is ready to be put in jars. From this process, a modern jam—fruit-forward, less sweet, and more tart—emerges.

Ways to Build Gel with Low-Pectin Fruits

  • Ripeness. Select the fruit carefully. At least one-third should be slightly underripe; none of the fruit should be overripe.
  • Add kiwi. Peel and finely dice one kiwi for every 3 pounds (1.4 kg) of fruit. Add at the maceration stage, and do not increase the sugar or lemon juice. The kiwi pulp melts away, but the little black seeds will remain.
  • Add green apple. Grate 1 unpeeled green apple right down to the core (unripe is best, Granny Smith will stand in) for every 3 pounds (1.4 kg) of fruit. Add at the maceration stage, and do not increase the sugar or lemon juice. The apple will change the texture of the finished preserves very slightly.
  • Add citrus seeds. Tie up the seeds from 2 lemons in a cheesecloth bundle. Cook the pre- serves with this bundle, removing it before ladling the jam into the jars. This is less precise, as all lemons do not have the same number of seeds.
  • Give it time. Many jams continue to set up as they rest on the shelf. This is especially true of cherry jam, many jellies, and some marmalades. If the wrinkle test works on a cold plate, in time the jam will gel in the jar. Be patient. It might take a week or even as long as a month.

The more jam I made, the more I wondered about making it without commercial products. Certainly preserves have been made for centuries before boxes of pectin were on the shelf. After some research and experimentation,  I began making my own pectin.  I don’t mean to disparage traditional pectins. They are effective and useful. But for the preserves I put in jars, I am happier keeping to a balance of fruit, sugar, and lemon.

Author: Cathy Barrow
Serves: 8 4-ounce jars
This homemade pectin is one way to firm up preserves. It’s shelf stable and ready when you are. Most apple growers will happily part with a few pounds of underripe apples. [br] [br]Early season windfall apples (on the ground after a storm) are the classic pectin source, but plan on additional pounds to account for removing the bruised or buggy parts.
  • 4 pounds (about 12 cups, 1.8 kg) gooseberries, mostly underripe and green, OR 4 pounds (1.8 kg) underripe apples chopped, including core and peel (about 12 cups, 2.8 l), OR 4 pounds (1,8 kg) underripe crabapples including core and peel (about 12 cups, 2.8 l).
  • 6 cups (1.5 l) water
  1. Put the gooseberries and water into your preserving pot and bring to a boil. Mash the fruit well with a potato masher. Reduce the heat and cook at a slow, consistent simmer for 45 minutes.
  2. Suspend a jelly bag over a catch bowl, or use a colander lined with three layers of cheesecloth. Spoon and carefully pour the mixture into the bag. Drain for 4 to 6 hours, until the fruit seems almost dry. Do not squeeze; just let the liquid drip into the bowl.
  3. Pout the pectin into the preserving pot and clip on a candy thermometer. Bring to a boil you can’t stir down (210°F, ~98°C); this will take about 30 minutes. Skim and foam or floating bits that come to the surface, then continue to cook to 220°F (100°C) to a thick syrupy consistency.
  4. Ladle the pectin into the jars, leaving ¼-inch (64 cm) headspace. Attach the flat lids and rings and finger-tighten the rings.
  5. Process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.
The pectin is shelf stable for 1 year, but it loses some oomph after about 8 months—so make just enough to use up during one canning season.


How to Use Homemade Pectin

Use one 4-ounce jar of Homemade Pectin for every 3 pounds of fruit. Occasionally a fruit will require 8 ounces for a firmer set. Add more if the set is in question; it will not change the flavor in any way. If your pectin doesn’t deliver a good set, it’s possible the fruits were too ripe. The greener the fruit, the more underripe, the stronger the pectin.

Reprinted from Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving by Cathy Barrow. Copyright © 2014 by Cathy Barrow. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Cathy Barrow

Cathy Barrow is the author of the food blog Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen. She has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Garden and Gun, Southern Living, and NPR, among others. She lives in Washington, DC, with her husband, Dennis, Louie and Morty, the two terriers, and an all-white cat.