Apparently, along with the pandemic-induced spate of home gardening, gathering, and preserving causing a shortage of canning jars and lids, there is also a shortage of pectin.
The good news is that you don’t absolutely need commercial pectin to make a good jam or jelly.
The less-than-terrific news is that doing without it means being much more observant and patient while making preserves, or to make and use your own pectin substitute.
But, heck, if you are tough enough to get through a Maine winter, then you have the right stuff to toss aside the pectin crutch.
I never use packaged pectin. Never. Cooks made jams and jellies for centuries before packaged products advertised certainty that your jelly would surely jell. A family story and a brilliant recipe taught me about making my own. My dad told me that grandmother Florence Oliver “always had a bag of apple peels dripping.” She saved her peels and cores, stewed them up, tied them in a jelly bag or cheesecloth and hung them up over a bowl. Then she used the liquid, heavy in pectin, to add to anything she wished to firm up.
Helen Witty, a mentor of mine and fabulous cookbook writer, offered a seedless blackberry jam recipe in her book Fancy Pantry that illustrated how to use apples to boost jelling in low-pectin fruit. She added apples to blackberries, cooked them together, then ran them through a food mill to take out seeds and peels and sure enough, the jam sets up beautifully.
Many berries like blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries are low in pectin. I’ve used homemade pectin to make jelly and jam out of red peppers and onions, which are not famous for having pectin. Apples and crab apples, on the other hand, have lots of pectin.
The plain fact is that despite low pectin levels, I’ve made perfectly good preserves out of low-pectin fruit by following the centuries-old formula of “pound for pound:” one pound of cooked fruit with one pound of sugar, cooked together until it sheets from a spoon. In fact, I have scanted the sugar by a bit and still made good pectin-free jam.
What sheeting from a spoon looks like might be a little tricky for beginners. The best description I read advised using a metal spoon (I use wooden). Dip the spoon in the jam and hold it sideways to observe whether the jam drips off quickly in single drops, or gradually, two or three at a time connected along the bottom edge of the spoon. Or you can look for pictures on the internet.
You can also put a little jam on a saucer, stick it in the freezer for a few minutes, take it out, tip it up and look to see if it drips. If you can push the blob with your finger without it flowing back into shape, the jam is ready.
The main thing is: Stay with that pan of preserves, stir it to keep it from sticking, look for smooth glossiness and greasy looking bubbles in the mixture, and test often. And remember that batches of preserves vary depending on the season: in droughty years like this one, the fruit has less water and needs less cooking time. In wet years, of course, the opposite is true.
Also, you know that making preserves on a humid or rainy day means that it takes longer to jell because moisture in the air discourages evaporation. Bright, sunny days like the ones we’ve had too many of this year will hasten the process.
One more thing: go shallow. Making a small batch in a flat pan, like a big diameter sauté pan, speeds along the process faster than using a deep kettle.
To make your own pectin, go find a gnarly old apple tree with small sour fruit on it and pick a bunch.
Then take the apples home, cover them with water, boil until you have applesauce with seeds and peels in it, and dump it into a cheesecloth-lined colander to drain until it doesn’t drip anymore. Call me careless, but I don’t sweat the proportions much. If my pectin is a tad weak, I cook the jam or jelly a little longer.
If you cannot gather little wild apples anywhere, you can use a tart variety like Granny Smiths or under-ripe apples of other varieties. In the directions below, I offer some proportions recommended in a few places I found on the internet.
From left: Draining the cooked apple mixture; the remaining juice drained from the mixture. Credit: Sandy Oliver | BDN
How much homemade pectin to use? You had to ask. I use roughly a quarter cup of homemade pectin to every packed cup of fruit I have. Soon, I’ll make a four-to-six cup batch of presently frozen blackberries, and I’ll use a half pint or less of my pectin, plus three to five cups of sugar.
1 pound of unpeeled, uncored apples
1 ½ cup water
3 pounds unpeeled, uncored apples
3 tablespoons lemon juice
8 cups water
7 large tart unpeeled, uncored apples
4 cups water
Put the apples and water and lemon juice, if called for, into a pan and bring to a boil.
Cook until the fruit has softened completely.
Line a colander or sieve with cheesecloth or other semi-porous fabric, set over a bowl, and put the cooked apple mixture into it.
Let set until all the juice has dripped out.
Can the pectin in jars and process in a boiling water bath, if desired, or refrigerate.