Experiment with Specialty Pectins

As many readers of this blog already know, I almost never use packaged pectin. After writing a whole book about old-fashioned fruit preserves, made as they were before packaged pectin was invented, I’ve felt no need for Sure-Jell or MCP or any such stuff. But recently Nadia Hassani, who wrote about her own experiment with pectins in her blog “Spoonfuls of Germany,” told me how much she liked Dr. Oetker’s Gelfix, a pectin mix from her native Germany, and offered to send me some. Gelfix seems to be sold all over Europe, but in the United States it can only be ordered through the Internet. I said I’d try it.

I decided to compare the Gelfix with a new product from Ball, a pectin mix that comes in a small plastic jar instead of a box, with flexible instructions that allow you to vary both the batch size and the sugar content. And then I saw a box of Pomona pectin at Nichols Garden Nursery and decided to include it in the test, too. Available mainly from special sources like Nichols and food co-ops (though some supermarkets are beginning to carry it), Pomona also offers flexible recipes, which allow the use of little sugar or even none at all.

I pulled bags and bags of frozen raspberries out of the freezer. I was accustomed to making raspberry jam with nothing but sugar and a little lemon juice added. My raspberry jam took a few minutes of boiling to set, but it always set to a pleasant, soft gel, and never turned out stiff or sticky or syrupy. How would I like raspberry jam made with these specialty pectins?

I started by examining the packages.

GelfixGelfix. Nadia had sent me Gelfix Extra, which requires only one part sugar for two parts fruit, by weight. Dr. Oetker also makes Gelfix Classic, which requires one part sugar for one part fruit, and Gelfix Super, which call for only one part sugar for three parts fruit. Nadia finds jam made with Gelfix Classic too sweet. Gelfix Super contains fructose—to boost the sweetness of the jam, apparently, while keeping the calories low. (In case your jam doesn’t set, Dr. Oetker sells packets of citric acid, too. Lemon juice works as well.)

Gelfix pectins are made from both apple pomace and citrus peels. The Classic and Extra versions contain dextrose, a form of sugar that’s included in Sure-Jell and Ball pectins as well and that’s replaced by the fructose in Gelfix Super. Gelfix Extra and Gelfix Super contain sorbic acid, a preservative, apparently to retard the fermentation and mold growth to which low-sugar jams are prone. All three Gelfix versions contain citric acid, which takes the place of the lemon juice traditionally added to jam to aid in gelling. All three also contain hydrogenated vegetable oil, which I imagine is meant to replace the traditional pat of butter that helps keep the jam pot from boiling over. The fat must be in a very small amount and somehow granulated, because the Gelfix pectin mixture is a powder, not a paste.

The Gelfix box contains two packets, each of which makes at least two and a half pints of jam. On the Internet I found prices for Gelfix ranging from $4.65 to $5.95 per box. At $5.00 per box, probably about the best you could do with shipping included, Gelfix would add about a dollar per pint to the cost of your jam.

Keep in mind that the Gelfix instructions are in German. Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

Ball pectinBall. I turned to the Ball product, called RealFruit [sic] Classic Pectin. Again that word classic. I began to understand that this is a code word for old-fashioned high-methoxyl pectin, the kind that requires a high sugar content for good gelling.1 Only two other ingredients are listed on the label, pectin (from citrus, apple, or both, the label doesn’t say) and citric acid. Ball’s Classic Pectin, in other words, has the same ingredients as Gelfix Classic except for the vegetable fat.

Had I chosen the wrong product for a fair comparison? I’d found a Ball pectin for low-sugar jams on the shelf at Bi-Mart, but on peeling back the label I’d learned that this Instant Pectin was intended only for freezer jam. Now I wondered if Ball made a pectin mix more like Gelfix Extra–a product Bi-Mart hadn’t stocked. A quick Internet search told me this was so. I should have bought Ball’s Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin instead of the Classic Pectin.2

I couldn’t have known this without checking the Web. Here in Oregon, Ball’s new products, unlike the company’s mason jars and lids, are only slowly gaining acceptance in supermarkets and other stores. Ball’s Pickle Crisp is another product that none of the stores in my area have stocked. I’d never seen Ball pectin of any kind until I found it at Bi-Mart, a low-cost dry-goods store that caters to rural folk here in the Northwest. Now my raspberries were thawed and waiting. I decided to carry on my experiment with Ball’s Classic Pectin.

Ball inner label
Ball’s sturdy peel-back label reseals against the jar time after time.

The instructions inside the Ball pectin label surprised me. There were two recipes, one for “Traditional Jam” and one for “Reduced Sugar Jam,” identical except for the amounts of sugar called for. Packages of old-fashioned high-methoxyl pectin are full of warnings: You must never alter the quantity of sugar, or your jam will fail! The Ball pectin, I figured, must be all or partially amidated, or subjected to a treatment with ammonia that makes high-methoxyl pectin behave more like low-methoxyl pectin, the kind that requires little or no sugar but gels in reaction with calcium. Normally, low-methoxyl pectins require added calcium for making jam. Amidated pectins do not; they are much less fussy about calcium levels. Jams and jellies made with amidated pectins are unusual, too, in that they will regel after you melt them. The Ball pectin isn’t so old-fashioned after all.

Ball’s “Traditional” recipe calls for 1 2/3 cups sugar to 1 1/3 cups chopped or mashed fruit. A weight measurement would be more precise, and also more useful for comparison with the Gelfix proportions. But the old saw “A pint is a pound the whole world round” proves more or less accurate for both mashed raspberries and granulated sugar. So the recipe calls for at least as much sugar as fruit, by weight. Truly traditional jam making, without packaged pectin, typically calls for three parts sugar to every four parts fruit, by weight, though you’d use less sugar with low-pectin fruits and more with high-pectin, high-acid fruits. Ball’s recipe is typical not for no-pectin-added jams but for jams made from high-methoxyl pectins, the only kind sold before the 1980s.

Ball’s “Reduced Sugar” recipe calls for much less sugar, only 1 cup for 1 1/3 cups chopped or mashed fruit. This is more in line with traditional jams. Still, I balked at the either-or choice. The label seemed to be telling me that the pectin could make good jam with a standard amount of sugar or a very high amount of sugar, but not with some amount in between. Why couldn’t there be a single recipe with the sugar amount specified as a range? Most likely, I figured, the marketing people at Ball think consumers can’t handle choices that aren’t black and white.

But the Ball instructions offer cooks another, more flexible choice: that of batch size. Here’s another command you may remember from boxes of high-methoxyl pectin: Never alter the batch size! If you don’t have quite enough berries, go pick some more! If you have too many, leave them out!

Actually, traditional jam makers have to be careful about batch size, too. If your batch is too big for your pot, for one thing, your jam will boil over. For another thing, evaporation is part of the process of reaching the gel point. A bigger batch has proportionately less surface area and so will gel more slowly. Also, natural pectin reacts best when both heating and cooling are rapid.

The Ball label invites multiplying the recipes but warns against exceeding ten jars per batch. You have to do a little figuring to understand out what this means: If the basic recipe makes two half-pints, the ten jars referred to must be half-pint jars. So you can multiply the recipe by five, but no more.

The Ball jar contains enough pectin, according to the label, to make up to 22 half-pints. You’d fill fewer jars with less added sugar, but even with the reduced-sugar recipe you should be able to fill 18 half-pint jars. The 4.7-ounce pectin container costs about five dollars, so using the low-sugar recipe with Ball Classic Pectin would add about 27 cents per pint to the cost of your jam making. At least in the United States, the Ball product is considerably cheaper than the Gelfix product.

Pomona package & instruxPomona. The last brand in my study contains no added sugar at all.3 The list of ingredients on a box of Pomona’s Universal Pectin is brief and precise: “1 packet low methoxyl citrus pectin and 1 packet monocalcium phosphate.” Low-methoxyl pectins need calcium to form a gel, but they can gel with less sugar and less acid than can high-methoxyl pectins. So no citric acid is included in the Pomona package, and with higher-acid fruits adding lemon juice is optional.

The monocalcium phosphate, the Pomona instructions say, is to be combined with water. You mix ½ teaspoon of the powder with ½ cup water, and you store this “calcium water” in the refrigerator, where it will keep for months. Although the Pomona instructions call for adding calcium water to every kind of fruit, too much calcium can interfere with gelling. So the amount of calcium water called for varies from 2 to 4 teaspoons per four cups fruit or juice. You shake the jar just before you measure some out.

Inside the Pomona package are recipes for low-sugar jams and jellies, no-sugar-added jams, and uncooked freezer jams. My favorites are the all-purpose recipes for cooked jam and jelly sweetened with a little sugar (1/4 to ½ cup per 1 cup fruit) or honey (1/8 to 1/3 cup per 1 cup fruit). For jam, you use ½ to ¾ teaspoons pectin for 1 cup fruit; for jelly, you use a little more pectin, ¾ to 1 teaspoon per 1 cup fruit. Otherwise the two recipes are the same. You refine these basic recipes according to the amount of fruit you want to use and how sweet your jam or jelly to be. These recipes are much more flexible than Ball’s.

The price of a box of Pomona pectin varies from about four to six dollars per box. A box contains 8 to 9 teaspoons pectin. This makes four batches of berry jam, if you use 4 cups of prepared berries per batch. Depending on how much sugar you add, your output will be 18 to 20 half-pint jars of jam. At $5.00 per box, the pectin would add 25 to 28 cents to your costs per jar, about the same as for the Ball pectin.

Making the Jam

I had thawed enough berries to make four batches of jam with about 2 pounds of fruit per batch. I used Ball’s “Reduced Sugar” recipe (1 cup sugar per 1 1/3 cups prepared fruit) for the best comparison with the Gelfix recipe (1 pound sugar per 2 pounds fruit). With the Pomona pectin, I made two batches of jam, one with 1 cup sugar per 2 cups fruit, and another with ½ cup sugar per 2 cups fruit.

The process differed slightly among the brands. With Gelfix, you boil the fruit, sugar, and pectin together for 3 minutes before testing a drop of jam on a chilled dish. With Ball, you bring the fruit and pectin to a full boil, stir in the sugar, and boil hard for 1 minute. With Pomona, you stir the pectin into the sugar, bring the fruit and calcium water to a boil, add the pectin-sugar mix, and boil hard for 1 to 2 minutes. Since I like a softer set, I chose a 1-minute boiling time with the Pomona pectin.

In all cases, the boiling was brief enough to produce a pinkish rather than dark red jam. In all cases, too, the jam set up quickly. As soon as I would take the pot off the heat, the surface of the jam would wrinkle with any disturbance; this is a sure sign of gelling. With the Ball pectin, the jam was clumping as I filled the last jar.

Although the Gelfix instructions say nothing about boiling-water processing, which isn’t normally done in Europe, I processed all the jars the same way. I sterilized them first in the canner, and after filling and closing them I gave them a 5-minute boiling-water bath.

The Taste Test

While my son Ben and his wife were visiting, we held a blind jam tasting with warm biscuits. We had to work at identifying differences among the jams—except in the case of the very-low-sugar Pomona, which lacked the sheen of the others and tasted more tart. To me, this stuff looked and tasted like cooked puréed fruit, not jam, but my husband, Robert, actually preferred its fruitier, less sugary flavor. The other, sweeter Pomona jam was a bit softer than the rest, probably because I’d given it the minimal boiling time. The Gelfix jam, which turned out slightly softer than the Ball, was Robert’s favorite. Deanna preferred the Ball, and Ben was torn between the not-so-low-sugar Pomona and the Ball jam. Most interesting to me was this: No one could tell that the Ball jam had more sugar.

Conclusions

Gelfix works well if you can get it, if you can read or translate the German instructions, and if the price and the addition of vegetable fat don’t put you off.

Ball’s RealFruit Classic Pectin is cheaper than Gelfix but requires more sugar. If you want to make your jam with less sugar, look for Ball’s Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin. Be sure you don’t buy Ball’s Instant Pectin by mistake; it’s intended only for freezer jam.

Pomona pectin costs no more than the Ball mix and is the clear choice among the three if you want to add pectin but not dextrose to your jam. Pomona also allows more flexibility in the amount of sugar you add to your jam than does either of the other products I tested. The necessity of adding calcium water is little bother. The only problem I see with Pomona is its limited availability. To encourage your local store to carry it, send your name and your store’s name and address to info@pomonapectin.com.

One final suggestion: For truly traditional jam, try making it without added pectin. Use three parts sugar to four parts mashed raspberries, and add a squirt of juice from a fresh lemon. The process is simple and quick, and the result is delicious. For more information, see The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves.

 

Notes

1. The main component of pectin is something called galacturonic acid. Molecules of this acid have groups of atoms called carboxyl groups. In nature, about 80 percent of these carboxyl groups are esterified with methane—in other words, turned to esters, groups of atoms that give fruits their fruity aromas. Methoxyl refers to a methane group, CH3, that is attached to a larger organic molecule through an oxygen atom. This arrangement is commonly described as R-O-CH3, with R representing the larger molecule. The linkage by way of an oxygen atom is also called an ester linkage.

When pectin is extracted, the proportion of esters decreases, to a varying degree. The ratio of esterified to non-esterified galacturonic acid determines the behavior of pectin in making jam and jelly. So pectins are classified as high-methoxyl (or HM, or high-ester) or low-methoxyl (or LM, or low-ester), depending on whether more or less than half of the galacturonic acid is esterified. As far as I know, Pomona is the only pectin packaged for home preservers that is identified on the package as low- or high-methoxyl.

2. Ball’s Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin contains dextrose, pectin, citric acid, and calcium ascorbate. The last ingredient helps preserve color while presumably providing the calcium needed for low-methoxyl jams to gel.

3. When figuring how much sugar you’re adding to your jam, you must account for how much sugar is in your pectin package. Nadia had informed me that, for a given weight of fruit to be prepared, Sure-Jell is heavier than Gelfix. The weight is mainly in sugar, in the form of dextrose. I compared the Ball mix with the other two in this way: If 1 kilo fruit makes 6 cups “Reduced Sugar” jam with the Ball pectin, and the 133-gram jar contains enough pectin to make 18 cups of this jam, then we can figure that the Ball mix would add 44 grams per kilo of fruit, compared with 32 grams per kilo for Sure-Jell and 25 grams per kilo for Gelfix. These differences, to me, are minor. But I appreciate that Pomona leaves the addition of sugar entirely up to the jam maker.