Today I’m tackling the hotly debated topic of pectin. Depending on how long you've been canning, you may have questions ranging from "what is pectin" to "do I need to even use it". Let me answer those questions and maybe a few more.
I learned to can on my own. You can learn almost anything with from a few trusted canning websites and a book or two thrown in for reference. You might think it’s kind of sad that it wasn't my mom or my grandmother passing down all of their knowledge then showing me step-by-step how to preserve fresh produce. But it’s really not that sad, I really don’t know any different.
Even after years of canning, I really don’t have close friends that can. It’s just kind of something I do on my own. (Maybe I need new friends.) My boys help me now that they are older. I really don’t hold it against my friends. Even though you and I know it’s an important skill most people don’t agree or are scared of the process. The thing is that maybe it’s a blessing I learned on my own. I’m not afraid to learn more because I’m not set in my ways, techniques weren't drummed into my head. I never heard, “you do it granny’s way or take the highway.” I continually read about things like pectin, processing times, headspace and keep up with new products. I am a modern canner.
As a modern canner I’m always looking for the best ideas/processes that will fit into my food storage. Of course, I want healthy food, but I also want shelf-stable food. As many preppers know, often healthy food and shelf-stable food don’t play well together. It’s a continual balancing act. I've always felt my job here on the blog is to be as non-judgmental as possible and provide you with options because in the end you have to find your own balance between shelf-stable food and healthy food.
Pectin: What Is It, Is It Good For You, And What Are Your Choices?
What Is Pectin?
Pectin is a naturally occurring substance (a natural carbohydrate to be exact) in the cell walls of fruit. Naturally occurring pectin varies depending on the type of fruit. In other words, not all fruits have the same amount.
What Is Commercial (Packaged) Pectin?
Packaged pectin is usually made from apples and citrus peels. The pectin is extracted then it is dried and ground into a powder. There are basically three types of packaged pectins.
- Classic Fruit Pectin--also called High Methoxyl or High-Ester Pectin--This is the pectin that most canners think of when they think of making jellies or jams. This is the kind of pectin you use when the recipe says do not deviate from the required sugar and fruit in the recipe. When using this type of pectin you must use a large amount of sugar. In some cases more sugar than fruit. The sugar is what reacts with the pectin to make it gel but it often requires a lot of sugar, often a sugar content of 55% or more. This is also the reason manufactures recommend you work in small batches - if the sugar pectin ratio is off the jelly or jam won’t gel. Honestly, it’s what makes a lot of health conscious people stay away from canning.
- Low-Sugar Or No Sugar--also called Low Methoxyl or Low-Ester Pectin--This kind of pectin actually starts off as high methoxyle pectin but through a process called de-esterifying in which the pectin is treating with an acidic solution (the substance can be natural) becomes low methoxyl. Through this process the pectin uses calcium to gel rather than sugar.
- Low-Sugar Or No Sugar That Has Been Treated With Ammonia--also called Amidated Pectin--This kind of pectin has be de-esterifyed with ammonia. It needs only a small amount of calcium to gel, and jelly or jam made with this type of pectin will re-gel after it is heated again and allowed to cool.
So What Are The Choices?
Ball and Sure-Jell are the most common (at least in my neck of the woods) types of classic pectin (High Methoxyl). Canners have used this pectin for ages but it makes your canned goods unnaturally sweet and really unhealthy. Jelly and Jams made with this type of pectin tend to last on the shelf longer because the sugar helps to preserve the food. This type of pectin is packaged with dextrose (a type of sugar). This pectin also comes in a liquid form but both the Ball and Sure-Jell (Certo) version have sodium benzoate added which is a preservative.
Pomona’s is the most common (again, in my neck of the woods) low sugar or no sugar pectin (Low Methoxyl). This pectin is truly all natural and contains no sugar. You can make both jams and jellies. It relies on calcium to gel and not sugar. Keep in mind that jam and jellies made with no sugar may not have as vibrant a color and that color may deteriorate over time. It really doesn't affect the taste of the food, but often times people will not eat food that looks unappetizing.
Sure-Jell and Ball make a low or no-sugar variety (also Low Methoxyl) but they are packaged with dextrose. So you can’t really ever get a no-sugar added food using these products. The sugar packaged with the pectin is not a huge amount but you do have to use quite a bit of the pectin, which makes it expensive. The calcium is already added.
Ball’s classic pectin may be amidated pectin. The thing is that recently Ball added a lower-sugar recipe along side the traditional (high sugar) recipe on the package. Remember what I said above? With real classic pectin you must use a specific ratio of sugar to pectin. If Ball can change the amount of sugar used without changing the amount of pectin used in their lower sugar recipe then something is off. I did not call Ball to integrate them and I don’t have a box of Sure-Jell to confirm the same thing with their recipes, but if you choose to use this type of pectin be aware that it’s a real possibility that it’s been treated with ammonia. Needless, to say this makes me suspicious of all Ball pectin and I may stop using it altogether. Read more about amidated pectin.
Ball makes an instant pectin for freezer jam that you don’t have to cook, but it also has extra preservatives like potassium sorbate. Sure-Jell makes a pectin called MCP (Modified Citrus Pectin). It’s marketed as a premium pectin using citrus pectin but it’s hard to find except on the west coast. I don’t have a box of it to compare recipes so I’m not sure if it’s a true classic pectin or if it’s an amidated pectin suspect.
Do You Need Pectin To Can Jam Or Jelly?
It depends on how stiff you like your jam or jelly. It also depends on what fruit you are using since some fruit has more natural pectin than others. Jam would probably always be usable without pectin but jelly might turn into syrup. Like most things it’s a matter of personal preference.
How Long Does It Last?
Ball and Sure-Jell have an expiration date on their packages. I could not find one on the Pomona’s package and on their website they say their product lasts indefinitely. Since pectin is essentially dehydrated parts of a plant, if you want to store it long-term I recommend storing it in a vacuum packed container. Liquid pectin cannot be stored long-term.
So How About Making Your Own Pectin?
Making your own pectin is certainly an option. It’s not really that difficult, you can learn more about it here. However, the downside of making your own pectin is that you would be making High Methoxyl pectin. Which means to get it to gel properly you’ll have to go back to that exact high sugar fruit ratio. Honestly, I’d rather take the risk and have my jam be a little runny and use no pectin. Here’s a great book about making jams and jellies without pectin.
What About Other Pectins?
Ball, Sure-Jell and Pomona’s are not the only packaged pectins on the market. There are other brands, including a German brand that contains hydrogenated vegetable oil (to take the place of using butter to control foam). There are off-brands sold by small businesses or specialty stores that contain pectin intended for pastries or for commercial canning. So if you decide to use one of these please ask a lot of questions about exactly what is in the package.
Making Jams And Jellies With Pectin
No matter which pectin you choose to use always follow the directions on the package. Pectin is sensitive to heat and breaks down if it is cooked for too long. Liquid pectin does not directly translate to powder. Most powder versions will give you conversions from liquid to powder on the box. However, if all you have is liquid pectin and your recipe calls for powdered pectin you might need to do some research before you start cooking.
Pectin in general is expensive. The low or no-sugar version is even more expensive than the classic, with liquid pectin being almost highway robbery. Using no pectin would definitely save money. However, that’s not always ideal depending on your time (having to cook down to thicken) and the fruit you are using. At first glance I thought Pomona’s was the most expensive option but after realizing you can make a lot more jam or jelly with a box than you can with the same amount of Ball’s low or no-sugar pectin, it seems Pomona’s is the best option for a low or no-sugar option economically.
If you've been scared to give canning a try because of the amount of sugar you've seen in a jelly or jam recipe now you know there are options--healthy options. Let me know about what kind of pectin you use and why you use it.