Aug 23, 2016

Understanding Pectin

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 Even among many life-long canners, pectin is a mysterious thing. How does it work? Why are there different types of pectin? What's it really made from? How can you use it and get consistent results? Recently, I chatted with representatives from some of the most popular commercial pectin-making companies, then coupled the information I gleaned from them with my own research. The result? Some definitive answers.

What is Pectin?

Speaking non-technically, pectin is a component (basically, a starch) found in the tissue of all fruits. Under-ripe fruit has more pectin than fully ripe fruit - and some fruits naturally have more pectin than others. Apples, quince, and citrus, for example, all contain higher amounts of pectin than other fruits.

For the purposes of canning, pectin is used to thicken and jell jams and jellies. Pectin will only jell, however, when it's cooked to the right temperature (210 and 220ºF, depending upon altitude). Cooking it cooler or hotter than this will produce jams and jellies with too much liquid. In addition, pectin typically requires sugar in order to form a jell.




Pectin "In the Old Days"


If you look at 19th century canning recipes, you'll never find one that calls for pectin. That's because canners relied on the natural pectin found in fruit, plus a long cook time, and perhaps even the addition of just enough under-ripe or tart apples, to create a jell. In fact, it wasn't until the early 1800s that scientists discovered that pectin is what makes jams and jellies jell, when mixed with the proper amount of sugar.

Here's a good explanation of how pectin works, from the British newspaper, The Guardian:
"Pectin was first isolated by French chemist Henri Braconnot in 1825 and was named from the Greek pektikos, which means congealed or curdled. It is a polysaccharide so, like cellulose and starch, it is made up of long chains of sugar molecules. In fruit, pectin is concentrated in the skins and cores where it acts as structural 'cement' in the plant cell walls. In jam, pectin forms a mesh that traps the sugary liquid and cradles suspended pieces of fruit.
"Branches that stick out from the long chains of pectin bond with each other to form the three dimensional network that jam makers crave. In a solution, these branches are reluctant to bond, first because they attract water molecules, which stops them bonding, and second because they have a slight negative electrical charge, which means they repel one another.
"To solve the first problem we add sugar, which binds to the water molecules and frees up the pectin chains to form their network. The negative charges are reduced by acid naturally found in the fruit or added to the mixture. The acid reduces the electrical charge on the pectin branches and so allows them to bond. To increase acidity lemon juice can be added. But be careful: if your mixture is too acidic, this will damage the pectin."

Citrus pith is an excellent source of pectin. (Photo courtesy of
Commercially Made Pectin

There are two types of commercially made pectin: Powdered and liquid. By and large, most canners in the United States use powdered pectin. It should always be used as directed on the package, and there may be slight but important differences in the instructions, depending upon the manufacturer.

Liquid pectin is added near the end of cooking. Many expert canners prefer liquid pectin, saying it produces a softer jell than powdered pectin, as well as more consistent results. Again, you should always carefully follow the manufacturer's directions for use.

Powdered and liquid pectin are not interchangeable. In fact, which type you use is determined by the recipe you're using. You cannot successfully use liquid pectin for a powdered pectin recipe, and vice versa.

There is some controversy online about what commercially made pectin is made from. Some say "mostly apples," some say "mostly citrus pith," while others say - believe it or not - mold. The answers came easily enough from producers of commercial pectin:

A Sure-Jell Certo (Kraft) representative responded to my inquiries, saying their pectin is made from lime peels.

Ball's representative said their pectin is made " from apple pomace, which is rendered as a byproduct of juice manufacturing. The Ball Canning liquid pectin is derived from citrus peels."

Connie Sumberg of Pomona Pectin said, "Our pectin is made from the dried peel of lemon, lime, and orange, after the fruit has been juiced and the oil has been pressed out of the peel. Pomona's Pectin contains only 100% pure citrus pectin, which is vegan, gluten free, and GMO free. There are no additives, preservatives, sugar, or dextrose. There are no corn or apple by-products." She also noted that other brands of pectin contain additives and sometimes preservatives; some, like

Interestingly, I have yet to find any commercial pectin that is organic - and both apples and citrus are some of our most heavily sprayed crops. 


No Sugar Pectin

Pomona's Pectin is a little different from the other available brands in other ways, too. Unlike most commercial pectin, which need the right amount of sugar to create a jell, Pomona's actually uses calcium to make a jell. This allows canners to use less - or even no - sugar in their jams and jellies, or to easily use alternative sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, or stevia. Pomona's is more costly than other commercial pectin, but each box also makes up to four batches of jam or jelly, which is more than other brands.

Other pectin makers also have low- or no-sugar pectin available; these can be used with fruit juices, sugar substitutes, and honey.




Homemade Pectin
Homemade pectin.


Some canners enjoy making their own pectin from under-ripe apples or crab apples. It's not a difficult task, but it does take a lot of apples to make much pectin. (However, it's a great use for all the tiny, immature windfall apples you'll get if you don't thin your fruit.) Some expert jam makers dislike homemade pectin, however, because it can lead to inconsistent results (due to the fact that you have no way of knowing exactly how much pectin is in any given batch).

In addition, jellies made with homemade pectin may turn cloudy - not a big issue for most of us, but something to consider if you plan on entering your jelly into a competition - a local fair, for example. In addition, homemade pectin (and commercially made powdered pectin, too) will likely lead to any fruit in your jam rising to the top of the canning jar.


No Added Pectin Recipes

It's perfectly possible to make fruit jams and jellies without adding any pectin whatsoever. However, the fruit must be cooked down longer, which results in a different look to the finished jam or jelly - and a more cooked flavor. In addition, compared to making fruit with added pectin, it will take considerably more fruit to make the same amount of jam or jelly. The upside is that you can often use less sugar in no-added-pectin jams.

When making no-pectin-added jelly, you may wish to add some under-ripe fruit to help the jelling process; although I have never personally had a problem getting a jell even when using quite ripe fruit, results vary depending upon the natural pectin amounts found in various fruits.
Photo courtesy of Sarah Ivey Rock


Testing for the Perfect Jell

Unfortunately, pectin doesn't jell jams or jellies until the mixture cools down. That's why my favorite way to test for jelling is the cold plate test.

Before you start cooking the jam, place a small saucer or plate in the freezer. Once you think the jam is finished cooking, place a dollop of jam on the plate, place it in the freezer for a minute, and then run your finger through it. If the jam or jelly runs back together, you need to keep cooking the jam. But if a clear pathway stays where your finger ran through, the jam is finished.

Troubleshooting Pectin

Here are a few of the most common jam and jelly making problems canners encounter - and their solutions.

Lumpy: Too much pectin.

Stiff: Too much pectin; overcooked.

Runny: Too little pectin; jam not cooked long enough; jam overheated.

Too soft: Overcooked; undercooked; insufficient acid; recipe doubles or otherwise increased; jam or jelly not allowed to sit in the jar long enough to set properly.

Too Stiff: Overcooking; too much pectin; too little sugar. 

Weeping: Storage space is too warm or the temperature fluctuates; too much acid.

Moldy: Not processed in a water bath canner for 10 minutes after putting in the jar; poor seal on jar; jars stored in too warm or bright a location.

Related Posts:

* How to Make Apple Pectin
* Other Uses for Homemade Pectin
* Peach Jam With No Added Pectin
* Bumbleberry (Mixed Berry) Jam
* Apple Pie Jam
* Dandelion Jelly


* Title image courtesy of


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