Learn how to make jam successfully – with a little help from pectin
I am very tired of winter, and dreaming of warmer days filled with fresh fruit and jam jars! So, in preparation for the coming harvest, I am going to delve a little deeper into understanding why and what turns a bowlful of ripe fruit into a jar of glistening jam.
What is Pectin?
If you paid attention in nutrition class, you may remember that there are two types of fiber; soluble and insoluble.
Insoluble fiber provides roughage. It’s the type of fiber that doesn’t break down much in our digestive tract, but acts like a road sweeper keeping everything moving along. Wheat or oat bran, beans and nuts are all good sources of insoluble fiber.
Soluble fiber dissolves in water to form a gel. Soluble fiber helps us feel full longer, and helps to lower cholesterol and blood sugar. Sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and avocados are all good sources of soluble fiber.
Pectin is a type of soluble fiber found in most plants, especially fruits. Pectin is what helps a pot of cooking fruit and sugar form a thickened gel, or jam.
Which Fruits are Naturally High in Pectin?
Although all fruits contain some natural pectin, certain fruits have higher levels than others.
- Crab apples and other sour apples
- Sour blackberries
- Concord grapes
- Lemons and limes
- Most plums
- Bitter oranges
Which Fruits are Naturally Low in Pectin?
- Sweet cherries
Which Fruits are in Between?
All over-ripe fruits contain less pectin than their under-ripe counterparts. Thus, ripe blackberries have less pectin than sour blackberries.
Also, certain varieties of the same fruit will have more pectin than other varieties. Thus, bitter Seville oranges are high pectin, but sweet oranges are less so. I have always found mangoes to have a large amount of pectin (as do some agricultural experts), but others find mangoes to be low in pectin. In general, the following fruits have a medium level of pectin:
- Sweet apples
- Most grapes
How to Add Pectin to Jam
Since we make jam from all of the above fruits, even those with low pectin levels, there must be a way to increase the pectin level – otherwise the jam would never gel! There are a few ways to do this:
Traditional long-cooking jams: The fruit mixture is cooked for a long period, leading to a thickened, slightly caramelized jam. See more about this method in a later post.
Liquid pectin: We can purchase liquid pectin to add to the hot fruit mixture, allowing the jam to gel. This is a quicker method than traditional jams. Liquid pectin will only work correctly when following a recipe specifically written for liquid pectin.
Powdered Pectin: We can also purchase powdered pectin. Powdered pectin is usually mixed with fruit before heating, and then sugar is added after the pectin powder is dissolved.
Both commercially prepared liquid and powdered pectin are made from apple or citrus peel. Both result in a sturdier, more formed gel than most traditional jams.
Low sugar pectin: There are several types of commercial low-sugar pectin that can be used to make jam. They are still a pectin product, but have been modified to work a bit differently (more on this in the sugar post to come!).
Homemade pectin: Back in the old days, before commercially prepared pectin was available, creative cooks made their own pectin to assure jam gel. Although it now seems like unnecessary work, you may want to make your own pectin too.
How to Make Homemade Pectin
I almost never use commercial pectin when making jam. I prefer a softer gel set than commercial pectin provides, and I prefer the flavor of long-cooking jams. Plus, commercial pectin leads to stomach distress. This isn’t my own idiosyncrasy – many people have gastric issues from commercial pectin. So, if you find that purchased jam gives you a belly ache, it’s probably the added pectin.
Also, you may want to avoid commercial pectin for other reasons. Commercial pectin includes preservatives, and is most often made from GMO corn sugar (dextrose).
So, you can make jam without adding pectin using the long cooking method, but jelly is another matter all-together. Luckily, it’s easy to make your own pectin that you can then use to make jelly or to decrease jam setting time.
- Put 8 cups of apple cores, peels, or chopped apples into a large pot. Tart apples work best.
- Add a couple of cups of water, enough to cover the bottom of the pan plus some extra, but not so much that it covers all of the apples.
- Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until everything is soft and mushy.
- Strain, using a jelly bag.
- The remaining “juice” is liquid pectin. To make jelly, use equal parts homemade pectin and fruit juice.
Check later this month for more Jam Making Basics!