Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Preserving Floyd: Canning Essentials - Pectin

No matter what groups you may move in, belong to, participate with, somewhere in that group there's always a tempest raging in a teapot.  Among home preservers that teapot tempest is Pectin.  To use vs not to use, commercial vs home made, regular vs low/no sugar.

I hope to do a little clarifying.
Pectin is a non-nutritive, complex polysaccharide found in varying amounts in fruits and vegetables.  Pectin forms chains and in the presence of acid (sour/under ripe fruit or lemon juice, ie. citric acid) loses some of it's ability to attract water. Once this happens the water is attracted to sugar and the pectin is forced into a three dimensional net-like structure that captures and holds the combined sugar and water. This, in essence, creates the gel.

Commercial high-methoxyl pectin (the boxes of regular powdered stuff) is most often made by extracting pectin from the peels and skins of citrus (usually left over from the juicing process) with acid.  The solids are separated and alcohol is added to precipitate the pectin out of the liquid.  The precipitate is dried and powdered.  This pectin is most commonly found under the brand names of Ball and Sure-Jell.  High-methoxyl pectin requires a sugar concentration of 55% or more in order to gel.  This translates to at least half the poundage in sugar of the total weight of the fruit.  IE. 4 lbs of fruit requires 2 or more lbs of sugar to make jam or jelly.  Cook time to the gel stage is not noticeably shortened and mastery of a gel or set test is required.

Commercial low/no sugar (low-methoxyl) pectin is the same as above with a few more steps.  Kinda technical.  The pectin goes through a process of de-estrification which converts it to low-methoxyl.  This process uses ammonia and creates amide groups that, in the presence of calcium, will gel using very little or no sugar.  The low-methoxyl pectin is stabilized with dextrose (a type of sugar) and either prepackaged with the necessary calcium (Ball and Sure-Jell brands) or needs to have the calcium added separately when making the jam (Pomona brand).  Low-methoxyl pectins rely on calcium to form the net-like structure that holds the gel.  Thus an artificial sweetener (like the pink or blue packet stuff) can be used.  Sugar, Splenda (which is derived from sugar), honey, maple syrup, and other forms of sweeteners can be used in very small amounts and both Ball and Sure-Jell recommend using only 3 cups maximum per batch (roughly 4 lbs of fruit by Ball's strawberry jam recipe) of fruit.  Let me reiterate that.  3 cups sugar to 4 lbs of fruit as opposed to a minimum of 2 lbs of sugar to 4 lbs of fruit for any other pectin! Complete cooking time is 5-10 minutes and a gel/set test is generally not necessary.  Pomona has different instructions for use and sugar amounts.
People get squicked out when they hear these technical processes and chemicals used to make low sugar pectin.  *GASP* This can't possibly be natural or good!  Not to worry.  It is a simple chemical reaction basically using ingredients you're already using in cooking, baking, preserving.  Bakers have been using ammonia for ages.  Acids are present in anything containing vinegar, or fermented foods and dairy, as well as naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables.  Dextrose is a sugar.  You are going to be adding more sugar to make jam.  Calcium is naturally occurring and if you take a daily calcium supplement you are ingesting way more calcium daily than is used in a batch of jam.  There is no genetic engineering or irradiation going on here, no weird science.

Home made pectin is basically jelly made from tart cooking/crab apples or citrus.  It is high-methoxyl pectin.Generally the flavor is not noticeable when added to other fruit.  It is a canning project in itself and the canned pectin eats up shelf space or, if frozen, valuable real estate in the freezer.  It's sugar requirements and cooking times are the same as or more than commercial high-methoxyl pectins.  You need to know how to recognize gel or set.

The "no pectin" faction.  I always smirk inwardly when I hear someone proudly announce "I don't use any pectin in my jams and jellies!"  Well, yes they do.  They are using the pectin that is naturally occurring in the fruit.  If they are adding lemon, lime, grapefruit (any citrus) juice or rind, apples, kiwis, either in chunks or pureed and added, or cranberries, they are adding pectin.  These are all examples of high acid/pectin fruits and "no pectin added" recipes using low pectin fruits (like peaches or strawberries) always call for the addition of acid usually in the form of one of the above high acid/pectin fruits, or huge amounts of sugar and an extremely long cooking time.  Again, like commercial high-methoxyl pectin, these jams and jellies require large amounts of sugar and long cooking times to reach gel stage and you must know how to test for gel or set.

Gel stage is generally reached between 217F-221F at sea level.  It is 2F degrees lower for every 500 feet above sea level.  When a jam has reached set or gel depends on how much water was originally in the fruit, the humidity of the day,. and altitude.  Just because the jam has reached the temperature at which a set should occur doesn't mean it will.  Gel/set tests are done in a couple of ways.  Using a metal spoon, scoop up some jam, hold the bowl vertical and let the jam drop back in the pot.  If set has been achieved the remaining jam drops on the spoon will run together and drip off as one rather than separate drops.  Another test is to place several small plates in the freezer.  Drop a spoonful of jam on the cold plate and allow to cool a little.  If you can run a finger through the jam and it stays separated and a wrinkle forms then it's ready.  Always remove the pot from the heat while testing for set.

So where do I stand in the Great Pectin Controversy?  I am squarely in the Low/No Sugar Pectin Camp.  I prefer the calcium already added brands over Pomona.  It's convenient.  You don't have to learn how to eyeball a gel/set point.  It's quick.  No overloading fruit with vasts amount of sugar and then cooking the bejeezus out of it.  Jam and jelly that tastes like fruit not vaguely fruity candy.  (You could argue that it's better nutritionally because of less sugar and less cooking, less destruction of nutrients.  But hey, it's a sweet condiment and all condiments should be used sparingly and in moderation.)  Very forgiving and easy to manipulate to customize/personalize.  I highly recommend it for beginners since it has a very good success rate and those first few successes inspire the confidence novice canners need to move forward.  Once a canner becomes more confident and experienced with the ways of sugar and fruit, s/he can make an informed decision about which pectin path to choose.

Because ultimately, pectin by any other name is, well, pectin.

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