The Art and Science of Successful Preserves

Apricot jam

Blenheim Apricot Jam

It’s officially jam making season — and the Monterey Bay Certified Farmers Markets are a jam maker’s paradise right now! In early June, almost all of the berries are in season including strawberries, olallieberries, blackberries, blueberries, loganberries, raspberries, and gooseberries with a short season of cherries and Blenheim apricots overlapping. Early stone fruits have also arrived — plums, apriums, pluots, and by the end of June, the stalls will be full of ripe peaches and nectarines. If you’re up for a little hiking and wild foraging, you’ll also find wild elderberries later in the season.

Over the past few years, there has been a resurgence of interest about how to make preserves by a new generation of cooks. What used to be considered a summer chore by our mothers and grandmothers, the art of preserving is gaining new appreciation by curious foodies and home cooks. Today, there are many new preserving formulations and guidelines available for making jams — low sugar, no sugar, no pectin, conventional — just be certain to use reliable and trusted resources for this information. If you’re new to preserving, use recipes developed by qualified sources such as an ag extension or one of the sources we list at the bottom of this article.

Pectin is Natural
For the record, whether you make your own pectin from apple scraps and seeds or use a box of powdered pectin, pectin is natural. Pectin is the magical ingredient that changes fruit and sugar into a gelled spread that holds its soft shape.

It is possible to make some jams or marmalades from fruits that contain natural pectin without having to add additional pectin for thickening. Making jams with fruits low in pectin requires either the addition of pectin for thickening (using a mixture of fruit with high pectin content, or powdered or liquid pectin) or a long cooking time that relies on evaporation for thickening the fruit mixture.

The downside of using a long cooking time to thicken fruit mixtures is that the resulting products oftentimes have a disappointing texture with mushy, overcooked fruit and a hint of scorched flavor. As a general rule, this is not a method that I recommend to novices for thickening preserves. Commercial producers (including many small batch producers) that make jams and preserves without additional pectin use specialized equipment for evaporation and thickening fruit. Steam jacket kettles are temperature controlled and designed to uniformly heat products quickly without scorching. Some artisan producers use wide-but-shallow copper confiture pans that have a heavy bottom for uniform heat distribution. These specially designed pans do a better job of thickening fruit mixtures through evaporation than more common straight-sided pots used by home cooks.

What Is Pectin?
Pectin is a natural plant based fiber found in many fruits. Commercially, it is extracted primarily from citrus fruit peel, apple pomace (skins), and by-products of juice production. Pectin is a congealing or thickening agent and is often used as a gelling ingredient for jams and jellies. Pectin is used in many other food products such as candies and confections (chewy candies like gummy bears, jelly beans, and the famous Aplets and Cotlets made in Cashmere, Washington), for thickening pie fillings, and as a stabilizer for milk, yogurt and juice drinks. Pectin is also used in medicine — it is a source of natural fiber that is used to treat high cholesterol.

A Little History
Pectin was first isolated and described in scientific literature in 1825 by French chemist and pharmacist, Henri Braconnot, though many housewives figured out how to use pectin-rich fruits to thicken jams and marmalades long before. Later, when preserves started to be commercially produced, manufacturers turned to apple juice producers to obtain apple pomace. The apple pomace was cooked to extract pectin. When commercial pectin was initially produced and introduced to the home cook in the 1920s and 1930s, it was sold as a liquid. Today, pectin is still sold in liquid form, but it is now also available in a dry powder form, which is easier to store and more shelf stable.

How to Make Great Jam Every Time
When pectin is used to make jams or jellies, it is the key ingredient that helps to create the jelly-like structure. Pectin also reduces syneresis (liquid separation from the fruit) in jams and marmalades and helps to increase the gel strength of low sugar jams. And, when using pectin, a much shorter cooking time required which also helps to preserve the fresh fruit flavor.

Powdered pectin produced for home markets include instructions and formulations for making jellies or jams specific to the manufacturer. All of the food chemistry has been done for you. You do not have to worry about adding calcium or acid catalysts, using a hydrometer to measure brix, or calculating the ratio of fruit mass to sugar. All you have to do is follow the instructions in the box precisely. A few basic rules:

  • Do not add or subtract sugar or fruit. Use exactly the amounts indicated in the instructions.
  • Do not substitute sugar with another ingredient.
  • If you want to make jams with honey, or lower sugar or no sugar, be sure to buy the correct low-ester pectin made especially for those spreads.

If you follow the instructions carefully, you should have good results every time.

If you are dissatisfied with the set of your jam (too runny, too firm), take the time to troubleshoot the problem and keep detailed notes from season to season in a preserving diary. Was the fruit too ripe? Did you forget to add the acid (lemon juice)? Did you measure ingredients precisely? Be sure to use the manufacturer’s preparation instructions and ingredient specifications that are included with the pectin brand you are using —different manufacturers have unique formulations. They are not interchangeable.

If you want to explore the web for new preserving recipes, go to pectin manufacturer’s websites (MCP, Sure-Jell, Ball, Pomona) or canning jar suppliers websites (Mason, Ball, Kerr) for reliable information. Also, most states have university related cooperative extensions that provide reliable information on their websites for the home canner.

Make Your Own Pectin
Okay — if you really, really want to do it the hard way — here’s a recipe for making your own pectin. The objection to using homemade pectin is “the guessing game” approach for its use. However, if you have oodles of time and curiosity, give it a try. The good news is, if your jam or jelly doesn’t set, it makes a delicious syrup or topping for pancakes, waffles, or ice cream.

RESOURCES:

For the beginning food preserver:
www.uga.edu/nchfp/

For making jams without sugar, see:
www.uga.edu/nchfp/how/can7_jam_jelly.html
www.splenda.com or call 1-800-7-SPLENDA
www.equal.com or call 1-800-323-5316
www.sweetnlow.com

For information on pectin for making sugar-free or low sugar jellied products:
www.homecanning.com
www.kraftfoods.com/surejell/
www.mrswages.com
www.pomonapectin.com