Before I get too far into this whole blogging thing, I want to give credit where credit is due. In the not too distant future, I’ll likely be the world’s hottest blogger in the experimental artisan jam scene. And before my head swells with pride, I want to come clean about who does most of the heavy lifting around here.
That someone is pectin.
Without pectin, this blog would be a tour of the world’s worst soups.
Pectin is the veal stock of making jams, with the added advantage of not having to boil babies to make it.
So, what is this marvelous pectin? Well, I’ll tell you.
Pectin is a complex carbohydrate found in plant cell walls that helps to bind the cells together. All higher-order, terrestrial plants have some pectin, but pectin levels vary depending on the plant, the part of the plant and the time of year. For example, unripe fruits have more pectin than ripe fruits and hard tissues have more than soft tissues. In fact, one of the reasons ripe fruit is softer than unripe fruit is because of enzymes produced during ripening that break down pectin in the cell walls, thus softening the fruit’s flesh.
Pectin is important to jam making because of it’s very useful gelling properties. When exposed to the proper ratio of water, sugar and acid, pectin forms a very uniform, consistent gel.
And what would jelly be without a good gel?
Gross, that’s what.
I won’t bore you with all the details, but basically, when you boil the fruit for a jam, the pectin comes out of the cell walls into the acidic syrup (a pH between 2.8 and 3.5 and a sugar concentration of 65% is ideal) and once enough water cooks off, it forms a gel, capturing the remaining water and allowing the jam to sep up. If too much water remains, the pectin molecules won’t come together in a high enough concentration to form the chains needed to create a good gel (you need about .5 to 1.0% concentration). And that’s when you get a poorly set up jam.
If you want to know what that looks like, take a look here.
There are many brands of commercial pectin available to the home cook, but they are all basically made the same way. The peels, cores and remnants left over after the production of apple or citrus juice (all of which are high pectin fruits) are dried and ground and have their pectin extracted in the form of a syrup. This syrup is vacuum dehydrated and the leftover powder is reground, sifted and packaged. A home cook will then add this pectin powder to a jam they are preparing to increase gellation and shorten cooking times. Commercial pectin is a convenient, predictable way to make jams at home.
But, not all of us making delicious jams use commercial pectin. Instead, we rely on the pectin that naturally exists in fruits to create a good gel. It takes a bit more work and a bit more thought and planning, but I think it’s worth it. I put a lot of time, thought and energy into making the best jams I can and I don’t want a heavily processed food byproduct in there.
So, the question becomes, what do I do if I need to increase the gel of a jam I want to make. What if I want to make cherry or pear jam, fruits with very low pectin levels? The answer comes in the form of Green Apple Jelly or what I’ve been calling Pectin Stock. Right now is a perfect time to make it because we’re just at the start of our apple season and, so, many of the apples available right now are very high in pectin. All one needs to do is add a bit of this jelly to a low pectin jam in place of some of the sugar and let it work its gelling magic.
I’m going to do a post on making the jelly in a few days, but the important thing for this post is that I now have several quarts of Pectin Stock that I can use whenever I’m making a jam that requires a pectin boost. And because I made it myself, I know who grew the apples (Bob Ela), when they were cooked (Monday) and what all went into my pectin (not much).
And that, my friends, is the sort of thing that makes me happy.