The Pectin Test


Pectin fascinates me. Did you know that it is found in most fruit in varying degrees? Did you know that under ripe fruit have more pectin than ripe fruit?When I first started preserving and learning about pectin I wondered how this water soluble enzyme could make the difference between a jelly/jam that sets and one that does not.

So naturally when I began developing more of my own recipes I wanted to better understand pectin and how it impacts the preserves I was making. I wanted to know how to determine when you needed to add commercial pectin in order to achieve set and when you did not? 

pectin test pear

Who better to turn to when you want to learn something about preserving, but the Jamlady. I saw her alcohol test for pectin and decided I needed to give it a try.

pectin test pear

You start by cooking the fruit for at least 5 minutes. As it cooked I crushed it down, then strained it through a sieve and allowed it to cool. You then mix 1 tsp of the juice with 1 tsp of rubbing alcohol in a small jar with a lid. Give it a good shake and then pour it out onto a plate. If a solid mass forms, the pectin level is high.

Raspberry Jam formed a nice solid mass

Raspberry Jam formed a nice solid mass

With the formation of a solid mass during this test, you can use the rule of a cup of sugar to a cup of juice when developing your recipe and you won't need to add pectin.

Blueberries has a small amount of gelatin formed in the test

Blueberries has a small amount of gelatin formed in the test

And in the instance of the over ripe pears below where absolutely no gelatin formed during the test you can conclude that you will need to add pectin to your recipe in order to achieve set.

Happy experimenting!

Over ripe pear showed no gelatin

Over ripe pear showed no gelatin

Pectin; liquid versus powdered

It's easy to get confused when you first start preserving when a recipe calls for pectin. Should you use powdered or liquid and are they interchangeable? You may have decided to just forge ahead with the powdered pectin that was already in your cupboard when a recipe called for liquid. How different could they really be considering they are both 100 percent natural and derived from apples or citrus fruits.

But I would guess that you were not pleased with the final result if you swapped one for the other...and here is why.

Liquid pectin

- recipes calling for liquid pectin combine the fruit and the sugar right at the start of the cooking process. The sugar dissolves completely before the product is brought to a boil and thereby reduces the chance of any crystals forming

- combining the fruit and the sugar at the beginning gives the sugar more time to combine or penetrate the fruit. This is important because it greatly reduces the chance that the fruit will float or that the fruit and the liquid in the jam will separate.

- flavours combine fully as the sugar pulls the liquid from the fruit being used

- you can allow the fruit to macerate which replaces that air in the cells of the fruit with sugar. This also decreases the chance that the fruit will float up to the top of the jar as the jam cools.

- the final 60 seconds of cooking once the jam has reached a rolling boil after the pectin has been added is to ensure the pectin has fully and equally distributed throughout the jam and/or jelly.

Powdered Pectin

- recipes calling for powdered pectin combine the fruit (or fruit juice in the case of jelly) and the pectin at the start of the cooking process. They are brought to a boil together before the sugar is added

- you may notice when using powdered pectin an increase in the jam bubbling in an unpredicatable manner. Perhaps you have even been burned by your jam when using powdered pectin. This is caused by the air bubbles still trapped in the fruit trying to escape.

- the final 60 seconds of cooking once the jam has reached a rolling boil after the sugar has been added is to ensure that the sugar dissolves completely and does not burn. You may notice jams made with powdered pectin tend to have hard crystals or perhaps they are even weepy. This is a simple side effect of sugar that has not completely dissolved.

Powdered and liquid pectin also require a different balance of fruit, sugar and acid to achieve set. So interchanging them will just end up with you chasing your tail trying to get a nice spreadable jam or jelly.

What is Pectin and why is it used in preserving?

Did you know that pectin is a water-soluble substance that is found in the tissues of all fruits and is a natural thickening and jelling agent.Different fruit have different amounts of pectin.

Under ripe fruit contains more pectin than ripe fruit but the flavor of under ripe fruit is not as suitable for jams and soft spreads. The amount of pectin in fresh fruit varies depending on the type and variety and freshness.

How it works...and this is where we get a little geeky ;)

When pectin molecules come in contact with fruit acid, chainlike structures in the pectin become charged and they begin to fold in on themselves. These folded chains trap water from the fruit or juice and form a gel. The introduction of sugar increases the strength of pectin, allowing it to trap more water and increasing its ability to jell. This is why it is important to use the right ration of fruit, pectin, sugar and acid. Too much sugar will result in too firm a set, too little and it will be runny. Jams made without added pectin must be cooked for longer period of time and end up thickening from the evaporation of the juice rather than from the process of jelling.

Excessive heat or high heat for an extended period of time during cooking will cause the pectin to break down and prevent jelling from occurring. If the length of boiling time is not controlled you may damage the pectin and end up with a runny jam.

Commercial Pectin is not evil

It comes in 2 forms; liquid or powdered. They are NOT interchangeable. Each requires a different balance of fruit, sugar, and acid to obtain the desired set. Powdered pectin is added to the fruit BEFORE cooking, while liquid pectin is added to the heated fruit and sugar mixture near the end of the cooking process.

Both forms are 100& natural and are derived from either tart apples or the white pith found under the colored peel of citrus fruits. The pith tends to have a sour flavor and it tends to be used in marmalades.

You can make your own pectin but be aware that you may have inconsistent results as you will be unable to control the concentration of pectin. Also, home made pectin has an extremely short life span and should be used within 24 hours.

I prefer to use store bought pectin to ensure consistent results when making jam.

Canning without pectin

When making jam or jelly without adding commercial pectin, at least ¼ of the fruit must be under ripe in order for it to set. But always remember, that this high proportion of under ripe fruit can change the flavor and texture of the final product. It must also be cooked for a longer period of time.

Happy canning!