|Different brands of pectin; image from pickyourown.org|
We've been talking about canning and preserving as an end-of-summer change of pace for the blog. Today, let's talk about pectins.
Previously, we talked a little about things that keep people from trying canning, which are usually safety fears or just pure lack of knowledge about how to can.
We reminded everyone that high-acid fruit jams, processed in a boiling water bath, are a very safe form of canning, unlikely to harm anyone because spoilage would be obvious (mold or a fermented smell). Thus, jams are a great place for beginners to start.
We also shared some resources for learning how to can, good books and websites for canning, online tutorials, and how to find canning classes in your local area.
One question that often arises in canning is the difference between the different types of pectin, and that can definitely be confusing. So let's try to break it down a little bit now.
What is Pectin?
Pectin is plant fiber that is used as a thickening agent for jams and jellies. Here is one website's summary:
By definition, pectin is a structural heteropolysaccharide found in the walls of plants that forms a colloidal system when combined with water. In simpler terms, pectin is a soluble fiber that forms a gel when you add water to it. Some plants have more pectin in them, some less. Apples and citrus fruits have the highest concentrations of pectin in them and are oftentimes the sources for what you will find on the shelves at your grocery store.Knowledge of the uses of pectin has been around for a long time, as discussed here:
Jams and Jellies have been produced for many years, at least since the 18th Century. Recipes were published in the "London Housewife's Family Companion" of 1750 which described jellies made from apple, currant, and quince, all fruits rich in gelling pectin.
Pectin was first isolated in the 1820s, and shown to be the key to making jams and jellies.
Gradually, people mixed pectin rich fruits or fruit extracts with fruits which do not set jams well - strawberry with gooseberry or with red currant, for example. Extracts of apple peels and cores were also used for "difficult to set" jams.
Commercial jam producers sought further supplies of pectin source materials. In Germany, apple juice producers started to dry the pomace residue left after pressing juice for sale to jam makers, who would cook the pomace in water with or without fruit juice to make a jellying juice.
The first commercial production of a liquid pectin extract was recorded in 1908 in Germany, and the process spread rapidly to the United States, where a classic patent was obtained by Douglas (US Pat. 1.082,682, 1913). This was followed by a rapid growth of the pectin industry in the United States, and also somewhat later in Europe.
In recent years, the centre of production has moved to Europe and to citrus-producing countries like Mexico and Brazil.There are several different types of pectin and each works a little differently. The main two types of pectin are high methoxyl pectin and low methoxyl pectin:
The high methoxyl pectin needs acid and sugar for it to work and is most commonly used for traditional fruit preserves. Low methoxyl pectin needs calcium present for the gelling process to work, which makes it better for low or no sugar preserves.This is a crucial difference, so let's discuss it a bit more.
High Methoxyl Pectins
High methoxyl pectins are the kind most people probably think of when they think of canning.
High methoxyl pectins are easily found in most supermarkets. Common brands are Sure-Jell, Ball, Certo, MCP, and many others.
Different brands have differing processing requirements. If you are going to make a recipe from the box, follow the recipes in that brand's box only. Don't swap brands because recipes are formulated specifically for that brand and its unique requirements.
Dry and liquid forms of high methoxyl pectins are not interchangeable either. Each has their own advantages, and which you use is mostly personal preference. Certo is the most common liquid pectin you'll find, but Ball also makes a liquid pectin which some people prefer.
There are also rapid-set and slow-set high methoxyl pectins. The difference is in the Degree of Esterification (DE). The rapid-set ones have a high DE and are used for products where you want chunks of fruit suspended in a gel, as in marmalades. Slower-set ones have a slightly lower DE and are good for clear jellies.
One disadvantage to high methoxyl pectins is that they need sugar to set up (jell), and therefore you can't alter the amount of sugar that's in the recipe. The recipe has been tested to see just how much sugar is needed to make the jam set up properly, so if you lower the sugar amount you will get runny jam.
Another nit-picky detail about high methoxyl pectins is that they are very finicky about changes to a recipe. If you try to make a double batch of jam, they won't set up well. Definitely make two separate batches rather than double a recipe. Also don't tweak the ingredients very much; a little bit of change in spices can be tolerated, but anything more will probably also affect the ability of the pectin to set up.
High methoxyl pectins need inordinate amounts of sugar. Usually the sugar concentration required is above 55 percent, meaning that there is more sugar than fruit in the recipe, causing the jam to be super-sweet. Many people (including me) don't like this.
No, I'm not trying to lose weight, and no, I'm not diabetic, but this is too much for me. My sweet tooth is absolutely overwhelmed by the sweetness in some of these full-sugar recipes, and I don't think that much sugar is good for your body.
If you are like me and want to lower the amount of sugar in your jams, consider a low methoxyl pectin instead.
Low Methoxyl Pectins
Low methoxyl pectin is made by subjecting high methoxyl pectins to a de-estrification process. High methoxyl pectins have a DE of more than 50%, and low methoxyl pectins have a DE of less than 50%.
A low DE means that low methoxyl pectins are responsive to calcium ions, unlike high methoxyl pectins, which lets them jell food differently. Canning with low methoxyl pectin involves adding calcium in order to activate the jelling properties of this pectin.
This is the biggest difference between the two pectins. High methoxyl pectins jell due to the interaction between the pectin, sugar, and acid, while low methoxyl pectins jell due to interaction with added calcium, thus requiring much less sugar.
Sure-Jell makes a low methoxyl pectin (available in the PINK box) in addition to its high methoxyl pectin (available in the YELLOW box). In the Sure-Jell pink box, the calcium has already been added to the pectin powder and stabilized with dextrose, so the cook doesn't have an extra step in the canning process.
Many people like the low-sugar Sure-Jell because that extra step is done for them. However, Sure-Jell's "low sugar" recipes still use quite a bit of sugar ─ about 3 cups of sugar for every 4 cups of fruit. Many people would like to use even less. So they turn to Pomona Pectin instead.
Pomona Pectin is the brand of low methoxyl pectin that will best accommodate low sugar recipes. This type is "amidated" through an additional processing step, which lowers the degree of esterification even more. Because of this, it is even more responsive to calcium for jelling, rendering the amount of sugar irrelevant except for taste.
Thus, cooks using Pomona Pectin can use as much or as little sugar (including no sugar at all) as they prefer. Most jammers end up using somewhere around 1/2 - 1 cup of sugar for every 4 cups of fruit with this pectin, but you can vary the amount of sugar used according to your taste, which is a flexibility no other pectin has.
In addition, since the jelling properties are not dependent on sugar, you can also use different types of sweeteners, like honey, maple syrup, fructose, agave, fruit juice, etc. Or you can use artificial sweeteners like Stevia if you need to watch your carb intake super carefully. For diabetics, people with PCOS, or people with cane sugar allergies, this flexibility is huge.
However, the trade-off is that the calcium needed is not pre-added to Pomona, so you have to make a calcium-water mixture beforehand and then add it near the end of jamming. This calcium water thing seems strange if you've not used it before, but it's really not a big deal. Here is information about using calcium water from the Pomona website:
What are the ingredients in the monocalcium phosphate powder that comes with Pomona’s Pectin? The monocalcium phosphate powder that comes in its own packet when you purchase Pomona’s is a food-grade rock mineral source of calcium made up of two minerals, calcium and phosphorous. The food industry uses it as a yeast nutrient in baking, an acidulant in baking powder, and a mineral supplement.
What is calcium water? Calcium water is a solution of some of the monocalcium phosphate powder that comes with Pomona’s Pectin and water.
How do I make calcium water? Put 1/2 teaspoon white calcium powder and 1/2 cup water in a small, clear jar with a lid. Shake well before using. Store in the refrigerator between uses. Calcium water lasts a number of months. These same instructions are on the directions and recipe sheet that comes with Pomona’s Pectin.
How long will calcium water keep? Calcium water should be stored in the refrigerator. It will last a number of months. When you take your jar out of the refrigerator, look at it before you shake it. You should see white powder settled at the bottom of the jar and clear water above that. If you see any other colors in the jar, discard the calcium water.There is a bit of a learning curve involved in using Pomona Pectin. Personally, I found that the directions included in the Pomona box were very confusing for a first-timer. It took us a while in our canning class to figure their directions out, and even our teachers were a little confused by some of their phrasing. But eventually we figured it all out.
If you learned to make jam using high methoxyl pectins, it's confusing at first to switch to a different order of mixing things (you add the pectin to the sweetener first, not the fruit, or it will clump). You also have an extra step, adding the calcium water). However, the advantages that Pomona offers outweighs the confusing directions and the extra steps.
For example, Pomona claims its pectin lasts indefinitely if stored properly. High methoxyl pectins don't keep well, and if you use last year's box, your jam may not set up properly. This means the storability of Pomona is a big advantage.
Another advantage is the "tweakability" factor. You can make double batches with Pomona, unlike with high methoxyl pectins, and that can be a huge time-saver. You can also add a certain amount of extra ingredients without messing up the pectin's action...just add a little extra lemon juice to keep the acidity factor high. And if your jam turns out too stiff or too runny, you can go back and tweak the jelling action.
All these things, plus the flexibility to use less sugar or different types of sweeteners, makes Pomona the first pectin choice of many experienced cooks. It's definitely a brand to check out if you do much jamming, or if you prefer the taste of fruit over the taste of sugar.
Do keep in mind that if you are using less sugar, there will be less volume in the final product. Also, the lower the sugar, the softer the jam set tends to be, if that makes a difference to you. But most people are more than happy to trade off these issues for the many advantages of Pomona.
Pomona Pectin can be hard to find in regular supermarkets, although most natural food stores carry it. You can also order it directly from Amazon, or you can get it through Pomona's website. Many food co-ops also carry it, and so do many farm-oriented stores.
Because of its many advantages, it's well worth the trouble to find and learn to use this less common type of pectin.
Do You Have to Use Pectin?
I'm sure some people are wondering whether you absolutely need to have pectin in order to make jam. Of course not; people made jam long before commercial pectin was around, But pectin does make your life a bit easier, which is why it's so popular.
Different fruits have differing amounts of pectin in them, so some don't need extra pectin to set up. For example, apples, cranberries, currants, gooseberries, quinces, and citrus fruits have a lot of natural pectin and often don't need anything extra.
Most berries, peaches, and apricots, on the other hand, have very little natural pectin. But even low-pectin fruits can make a decent jam if you cook them long enough, add a lot of sugar, and add a little acid (like lemon juice). The problem is you have to stir them in a hot steamy pot for quite a while, usually in the middle of the hot summer. Boiling for a long time also reduces the amount of nutrients in the fruit and the amount of jam produced.
Thus, many people elect to use pectins as a way to make jamming faster and cooler, and as a way to keep the jam more nutritious and less caloric. Others prefer to make jam without the shortcut of added pectin, feeling that the flavor is richer that way, even if the jam is a little runnier. It's all about your preferences.
You can find instructions for making jam without pectin here. The trick is to use a certain amount of fruit that is a bit underripe (has more natural pectin), but not so much that the flavor is compromised. Another option is to add apple juice instead of water when cooking, or to add other high-pectin fruits to the jam.
If you are going to make jam without pectin, it's important that you know how to recognize when it jells properly, as the amount of cooking time will depend on the ingredients used, the ripeness of the fruit, the water content of the fruit, your elevation, etc.
So the cooking skill-set needed for no-pectin jams is a little higher, but it can absolutely be done.
Can You Make Your Own Pectin?
Some people don't want to use commercial pectin, either because it is cheaper to make your own, or because they object to the processing that commercial pectin goes through.
Commercial pectin is made mostly from citrus peels or apple pomace (what's left over after juicing apples). New pectins are being developed from sugar beets and even sunflowers, but citrus peels (and apple pomace to a lesser extent) are the most common sources for commercial pectin.
If I understand the process correctly, hot dilute acid is added, the results are separated and filtered, and alcohol is used to precipitate out the pectin. The product is washed and dried and made into a powder. This becomes the high methoxyl pectin we see in most supermarket brands.
High-methoxyl pectins (DE usually 60-75%%) are subjected to a de-esterification process using acid in order to hydrolise some of the ester groups and create low methoxyl pectins (DE around 20-40%). For the very low methoxyl pectins like Pomona, hydrolysis using ammonia converts some of the ester groups into amide groups, creating the amidated low methoxyl pectin that is needed for low/no sugar pectins.
All of this sounds complex and off-putting but is generally considered very safe. Still, if you object to all this processing or simply want a cheaper, more easily available pectin, you can make your own pectin at home from underripe apples or crabapples. Directions can be found here, here, or here.
Remember that the result will be a high methoxyl pectin, but one that may result in a less firm gel than commercial pectins. You will need to use a lot of sugar (and some acid) in these recipes, need to have the skill to recognize when the proper jelling stage is reached, and be accepting of a slightly runnier product. But making your own pectin is definitely do-able; it's what most of our great-grandmothers did.
Well, there you go, more than you ever wanted to know about pectin!
Turns out, pectin was way more interesting (and way more complex!) than I thought it was going to be when I started. What I thought was correct was often incorrect when I did a little more research. And I found that there are an awful lot of strong opinions out there about pectins.
However, what it boils down to (!) is that there are two main types of pectin. High methoxyl pectins needs lots of sugar and some acidity to jell, and low methoxyl pectins need calcium to jell and are thus great for jams with less sugar.
You can use commercial pectins, make your own, or create a jelling effect by cooking the fruits for a long time, but there is little consensus about the "best" type of pectin. It all depends on what you want out of a pectin, what you are making, what fruit you are using, how sweet you like things, what sweetener you want to use, what gel consistency you want, and your opinions about how pectins are made. The key is to experiment and find out what you prefer.
Some people prefer their jams super-sweet and cooked. If this is you, high methoxyl pectins are probably your best choice. Sure-Jell in the yellow box, Certo or Ball liquid pectin, or Ball regular pectin are all brands that work well for full-sugar jams.
Some people want to use less sugar but don't want an ultra-low sugar jam. Low methoxyl pectins like Sure-Jell in the pink box, Ball's Low or No Sugar Pectin, or Pomona Pectin are the best for this, and they all result in great-tasting jams that are still plenty sweet.
If you want very little sugar in your jam (or prefer a different type of sweetener), then an amidated low methoxyl pectin like Pomona Pectin is the way to go.
Most people I know who do a lot of jamming prefer Pomona, frankly, because it's so much more flexible than the other pectins. It's harder to find, but seems well worth the effort. However, any type of pectin works very well and results in a good product.
You can also make your jams without any added pectin. I would like to try this at some point so I know how to do it, but generally I prefer not to cook jams that long. The flavor is too overcooked for my taste, and the jams too sweet. But many purists prefer this style.
If you are feeling adventurous, make your own pectin! I've never done this either, but I like the DIY aspect of it, and it's a good skill from an emergency preparedness point of view. I will try this at some point so I know how to do it, but it probably won't be my main kind of jamming unless it needs to be.
Personally, I prefer the low methoxyl pectins. I've had great luck with Sure-Jell in the pink box; it was very easy for a beginner to use and the results were really tasty. I'm experimenting now with using Pomona Pectin in order to reduce sugar content even more in my jams. I really like the flexibility it offers over other pectins, so I think I'll probably use it more as I do more canning.
If you are a beginner and feeling totally intimidated about the whole process, I suggest you start with the pink box Sure-Jell Strawberry Freezer Jam recipe so you have an easy first experience with jamming and don't have the added intimidation of water-bath canning. And the flavor of this jam is soooo good, it makes great Christmas gifts...if you can bear to give it away!
Then when you have had your first successes (and have gotten addicted to homemade jam!), try some of the canning recipes that use a boiling water bath. Truly, it's not that hard, and you're not going to poison your family. Plus the results are delicious and don't have to be frozen!
As a fellow beginner, I would also remind you that you don't have to preserve everything under the sun. People often feel intimidated by the Canning Queens out there and can't envision spending that much time and effort. Just because some people spend tons of time on canning doesn't mean you have to. You can preserve food just as much or as little as you prefer.
Start small and see how it feels, then if you like it, expand into different fruits, techniques, and pectins as your time allows. Take a class and learn new techniques if you prefer to learn by watching and doing. Experiment with new recipes. Allow yourself to make mistakes and remember that you don't have to be an expert overnight.
I promise, you don't have to be Betty Crocker or Susie Homemaker to learn how to can. I'm about as far from a Domestic Goddess as you can get, but I've found canning quite rewarding, not to mention delicious and nutritious. Give it a try!
*What are your favorite jam recipes? Tell us about them and share a link to the recipe!
**Pectin Trivia: High methoxyl pectin is also being used as a treatment for some cases of high LDL cholesterol, as it inhibits the absorption of cholesterol from foods. It's a common ingredient in anti-diarrheal meds as well. There is also some evidence that modified citrus pectin (MCP) may reduce the risk of tumor metastasis, especially in prostate cancer and perhaps breast cancer and melanoma. However, all this is preliminary and far from well-proven; always consult your care provider before trying anything new. I just thought it was interesting that pectin might have some medicinal benefits too.
***Update October 2018: I now have added a guide to Remaking Runny Jams. If you have a batch of jam or jelly that does not set up and gel, try some of the techniques in this post.
Further Canning and Pectin Information
General Canning Information
General Pectin Information