Most people just add pectin to their jams without giving it much thought. While we all know that this powder or liquid thickens our jams how many know why or what happens when things go wrong? While it is ok to take this important little package for granted, knowing a bit more about pectin will ensure more consistent results when it is time to make jam and will also offer you some options you might not know you have.
What is Pectin?
The answer to that question can either be very simple or complex depending on who you ask and why. Since most the people who use pectin in canning are only looking to use it to accomplish a particular task, the few science nerds in the community will have to excuse me if I do not launch into a scientific discussion about what pectin is.
Perhaps the better question would be to ask where does pectin come from and what does it do? These are questions that are not only pertinent to canning they are important questions that can affect the final product.
Pectin comes primarily from fruit, more specifically the skin and core of raw fruit. Some fruits have more pectin than others, such as citrus fruit. If you have ever made marmalade for instance you will notice that most recipes do not call for pectin. This is because these fruits have plenty of pectin on their own.
Pectin is a carbohydrate that functions like a structural cement that holds cells together. That is good news for you, because that is exactly what you need when making jam. When pectin is put into a jam, it forms a molecular mesh that traps liquid and sets as its cools. Or even more simply it makes your jams and jellies thick and tasty.
How Does Pectin Work?
This is important because this is where you start to understand what goes wrong when you use pectin in your recipes. Pectin needs acid and sugar in order to work properly, which is to gel the fruit, making it thick. Acid helps to extract the natural pectin from the fruit you are making jam from, and the mixture must be fairly acidic in order to gel properly. That is why some recipes require lemon juice and some do not, because some fruits are generally more acidic than others.
Sugar has an important job as well, it attracts water away from the pectin molecules encouraging them to join together. This makes for much better gelling. Sugar also helps the jam to hold its color and works as a preservative.
If you have made jam and jelly before and had it not turn out right, is it possible that you did not put enough or too much of the lemon juice or sugar in it? These recipes are carefully formulated with the right amount of sugar and acid to ensure that you get consistent results. Also keep in mind that if the fruit you are using is not as tart as it usually is, that you might need to add a bit more lemon juice.
Keep in mind that this is also one of the reasons why most recipes discourage the use of old fruit that is past its prime. The older fruit is, the less pectin it has. If you use old almost mushy fruit your jam may not turn out right.
Do You Have to Use Pectin?
A common question asked is, do you really have to use pectin? The answer is no, but be prepared to spend a lot of time in the kitchen cooking, because to develop the pectin from fruit naturally takes a bit of knowledge and a lot of patience. The longer you simmer the fruit the more moisture that is evaporated and the thicker the jam is. This also aids in concentrating the natural pectin in the fruit.
Did you ever wonder why so many old recipes were combinations of different fruits and why so many had citrus in them? This is because your grandmothers did not have or use pectin but knew how to combine low acid fruits with high acid fruits to make a great jam. Rhubarb for instance needs the help of oranges in order to create a thick enough gel. Apples that are high in pectin were combined with raspberries or cherries that were lower in pectin.
You can also make your own pectin by following the recipe found on Urban Farm Online
If you are having problems with your jam chances are good it has something to do with your pectin, here are a list of problems and what you can do to fix them.
1) Jam is Too Stiff – Sometimes the jam is too stiff and will not mix down into a nice thick jam. This has to do with too much pectin which can happen in a variety of different ways. If you cook the jam too long and boil off too much moisture the pectin will become too concentrated, this will result in too much pectin for the recipe. This can also occur if you have the heat on the stove set too high and you are not stirring it enough.
Finally under ripe fruit has a lot of pectin as compared to fully ripe fruit. Commercial pectin is formulated to work with fully ripe fruit, so using under ripe fruit will result in too much pectin in the mixture.
If your jam is too thick, you can add a bit of grape or apple juice to the mixture to thin it down before it is canned.
2) Jam Does Not Set Up – This is the same problem in reverse. Most times if jam does not set up it is because there is not enough pectin in the mixture. Most common reasons for that are undercooking, (make sure that jam is at a rolling boil for one minute) not enough pectin in the recipes (or too much fruit, don’t be tempted to add that last half cup!) Not enough sugar or forgetting to add the lemon juice can also cause this problem.
This is also a good reason why it is not ok to double your recipe. Recipes are formulated to heat at a certain temperature and larger batches will provide inconsistent results due to higher temps and uneven heat.
If your jam is too runny after you have already canned it, you can use no sugar needed pectin (the regular may make it too sweet) lemon juice, and sugar to fix it. You will need new lids as well because you will need to re-can it when you are done.
Empty jars to be fixed into a large pan but make sure to keep track of how much jam you need to fix in terms of volume you will need this information.
For each quart of jam you need to fix, add 1/4 cup sugar, 1/4 cup water or apple or white grape juice, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, 4 teaspoons of powdered pectin. Add these to the pot your jam is in, bring it to a boil, and keep it at a rolling boil for 1 minute. You can test for gel by keeping a spoon in a cup of ice water (which helps the jam cool down faster) shake off the excess water and take a small spoonful of the mixture out and let it cool. If it gels up properly you can proceed to can the jam, if not add another 1/4 to 1/2 package of pectin and bring it back to a boil for 1 minute. Can as normal.
I did a blog posting on making your own pectin from apples – that way you never run out when you need it most :). If you’re interested in the recipe it can be found here: http://ecofootprintsa.blogspot.com/2014/05/making-your-own-pectin-for-your-fruit.html
Emily q says
I’ve read that orchards grew crabapple trees just for the purpose of pectin. They aren’t a prefered fruit these days so they are not as plentiful as they used to be. It makes sense to me. My neighbors have a crabapple tree so I will be trying them out as a pectin substitute this summer. Thanks for the great resource!