A Pectin Primer

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Fall is pulling up its roots and skipping town, and leaving in its wake a bounty of unclaimed gifts; there is still a cornucopia of grapes, rosehips, crabapples, herbs and fruit waiting to be canned and pickled. Many of us hate to see produce -especially produce that we have grown ourselves- go to waste, and thoughts at this time of year turn to ingenious ways of preserving this windfall. For first time canners, the prospect of making jams or jellies can be daunting.

First of all, if you are planning on making fruit jellies or jams, you would want to use pectin rather than gelatin. Pectin is a carbohydrate that is naturally occurring in the cell walls of most plants and helps to bind the cells together. Especially high in concentration when the fruit is ripe, it can be extracted from plants and sold commercially, or in some fruits, like apples and many citrus fruits- the source of most commercially produced pectin- the concentration of pectin is so high that no additional pectin or solidifying agents are needed to make a jam or jelly. Other fruits, like strawberries, are low in pectin, so you would have to add it to the preserving process to have your jam set, either by adding pectin crystals, or liquid pectin, or by mixing the low-pectin fruit with a high-pectin fruit, something like raspberry and apple for example.

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Fruits high in pectin are tart green apples, crab apples, pears, currants, green gooseberries, and citrus.  Grapes, loganberries and dessert apples have moderate amounts of pectin, and apricots, cherries, elderberries, nectarines, peaches, strawberries, raspberries and rhubarb have little or no pectin. There is a test you can do to determine the amount of pectin in your fruit; place a teaspoon of fruit in a cup, add 3 teaspoons of methylated spirits and leave for a minute. If a firm clot forms, there is plenty of pectin. If the clot is soft and easily broken, not so much, and a soft clot that barely holds together without breaking up indicates poor pectin content.

 

Pectin is a plant carbohydrate, a good source of soluble fibre and as such is suitable for a vegetarian or vegan diet, and it requires sugar and acid in the proper concentrations to set. Gelatin is an animal protein derived from animal based sources, specifically collagen, the substance found in the bones, hooves and skins of animals. It dissolves in heat, and solidifies when cooled, and it doesn’t need sugar or acids (like citric acid, found in many fruits) to set, which is why it is mostly used for setting dairy products, or mousses and pates. Yes, Virginia, your jello comes fromboiled pig skins,bones and hooves. 

Of course you can opt to make a strawberry jam withoutpectin there are many recipes for jams and they are really good, resulting in a jam that is soft and runny, not unlike a fruit compote. But for jellies made of fruit that is naturally low in pectin, you would need to add it to get a good set. The important thing to remember about using pectin when making your jam or jelly is to follow the directions assiduously and you should have no problem.

Just-harvested local grapes are in abundance now, so we have included here one of the simplest recipes for a quick and easy grape jelly courtesy of our friends south of the border at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

 

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Grape Jelly

Ingredients

5 cups grape juice (about 3½ pounds Concord grapes and 1 cup water)

1 package powdered pectin

7 cups sugar

Yield: About 8 or 9 half-pint jars

 

Steps

Sterilize the jars and lids first.

Sort, wash, and stem the grapes. Put into pot with enough water to cover, bring to boil on high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes, mashing the grapes to release their juice. Let juice stand overnight, then strain through two thicknesses of damp cheesecloth to remove any crystals that may have formed.

Add pectin to strained juice and stir well over high heat and, stirring constantly. Once it comes to a full boil add sugar, continue stirring, and heat again to a full boil. After 1 minute remove from heat. There will be a bit of foam, skim this off.

Pour the jelly into sterile jars, leaving half an inch of headspace. Wipe rims of jars with a dampened clean paper towel then screw on lids and process in a pot of boiling water.

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