Saturday, June 11, 2011

Are you gelling? All about Pectin

     Canning season is here, I covered sugar so now it's time to talk a bit about pectin, what it is and how it works. You can't make jam or jelly without it so it is always good to know a little bit about the stuff.

     Pectin is found in all fruit in various quantities. It is a hetropolysaccaride(complex carbohydrate) found in the cell wall of  plants and is what gives an apple it's crisp texture. It acts much like collagen in our skin. The highest concentrations are in the skin and core. For our purposes here, there are two types, high and low methoxyl.

The pectin molecule

     Pectin has a variety of health benefits, helps lower cholesterol, can be used as a detoxifier and is a good source of soluble dietary fibre. Unfortunately this is only before you make jam with it. An apple a day really can help keep the doctor away.

     Most of us are familiar with high methoxyl pectin. In traditional jam and jelly making, at the right temperature, sugar and acid make pectin bind with water creating a gel or setting the jam/jelly. Many fruits have enough but there are also commercial brands that allow the added pectin boost to set things like strawberries or rhubarb that aren't high enough on their own. You can also make pectin stock or your own powder at home.

     Where does the commercial stuff come from? It is made from the leftovers of juice extraction, apple pomace or citrus fruit rind. It is a natural product. It comes in a powder or liquid form. They are different concentrations, so are not interchangeable in your recipes.

Powdered pectin

     Why is it added to most store bought products? Pectin is heat sensitive and if over cooked, loses it gelling capability. Most commercially produced jams are cooked at high temperatures, for longer periods and in large quantities, destroying the natural pectin in the fruit so it is added to set the finished product. This is why you can't, or shouldn't, double or triple your recipes at home.

     Why all that sugar? High methoxyl pectin requires very specific conditions be met to produce a gel, if they aren't your recipe won't set. Jelly is very sensitive to changing sugar quantities, it is just juice. Jam is a little more forgiving because you have the added pectin of the fruit, but only a little.

     That brings us to low methoxyl or no sugar pectin. True no sugar pectin binds in the presence of calcium. You have to add the calcium, usually in the form of calcium phosphate, to your recipe. The plus is this is a more stable form of pectin that doesn't degrade over time. You don't end up with expired stuff that won't work, and believe me I've tried and it doesn't. You can add as little or much sugar or any other sweetener as you like. You can double or triple recipes. On the negative side, no sugar jams and jellies spoil faster when open, no preservative effect from sugar. It is more expensive and harder to find than regular pectin.

     The low sugar pectin I have seen all have dextrose, another name for glucose, as the first ingredient so .....
I don't use it because I don't have a recipe I like that calls for it, so no experience there.

     Do I need to use extra pectin? Absolutely not. This opens up the whole long boil vs short boil debate.

     Traditional jam and jelly making is the long boil. Fruit and sugar are boiled until it reaches the gel point, 8 degrees Fahrenheit above the boiling point, 220 degrees, roughly 104 degrees Celsius. It takes as much time as it takes. I can't be any more specific than that because it varies. You don't typically need to add pectin to these recipes because pectin poor fruits are combined with pectin rich fruit or juice to achieve the gel.

     Short boil is exactly that. A minute or two after your mixture reaches the boiling point, you add your pectin, cook a minute or two longer and it is done.

      Adding pectin shortens cooking times and increases yield and nutrient content. True, but none of my recipes cook more than 20 minutes, the increase, a lot of it is water and as far as nutrient content, heat sensitive nutrients are destroyed at certain temperatures. Yes, prolonging cooking time makes it worse but not by huge leaps and bounds. Besides, jam or jelly is not my go to for minerals and vitamins, nor should it be yours, it isn't particularly high to start with.

     The only difference to me is taste. Personally I find the two products are different and prefer the taste of the long boil. It is more intense because the fruit is more concentrated and the longer cooking time caramelizes some of the sugar. Strictly a personal preference. I'm not a fan of freezer jam at all although it does make good ice cream topping.

     I know it doesn't sound like it but I do use the stuff myself and have been very pleased with the results. I just like to present both sides of the argument. The choice is yours.

     In all honesty, I'm not a huge fan of jam or jelly. I do make and love some but I prefer the texture and taste of fruit butters or compotes skipping  the pectin/sugar debate entirely.

     Are you gelling? Leave me a comment below and let me know your experiences working with or without added pectin. Take care.



  1. I make my jam in my bread maker, as it has a jam setting. I have made it with pectin (for no sugar added recipes), and made it without. My results were not that different; in taste, or appearance, aside from the fact that the pectin version was a bit more "set". However, I did find a big difference between powdered pectin, and a liquid pectin that I used once (disaster). not sure why..??

  2. Liquid and powdered pectin are not interchangeable, different levels of pectin in each. I did see an approximate conversion once for substituting but it really isn't recommended. I don't have a bread maker so I had no idea they had a jam setting. Intriguing??


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