Talking Shop: Jamming With Pectin
Okay, so I’m not even going to lie, nobody asked me about this topic. I was curious.
The other day I ran across an interesting package. Thermoreversible pectin. Thermo.. reversible. Pectin. What was that? Furthermore, what did “Thermoreversible” mean? (Please keep in mind that I went to art school. I didn’t bother wasting my time with frivolous classes like chemistry.) This little black bag of mystery caught my eye because I had never heard of thermoreversible pectin, nor did I know that there were different types of it outside of what you would find in the canning supply aisle at the store.
But what was thermoreversible pectin, and would it be easier to work with than the standard boxes of stuff collecting dust with the other canning supplies? Personally, I have always shied away from making jams or jellies because I have consistently had pretty shitty results. One year I attempted to make hot pepper jelly for Christmas gifts, which resulted in a lot of syrupy mess in a jar. Another summer, I tried making blackberry jam.. which was so stiff the knife just stood in the pot. (That was kind of convenient, actually.) Rather than figure out the chemistry behind pectin and how to make it work for me, I shrugged and decided to let the fine people of Smuckers continue to do their job. I was okay with that.
That was until I saw this bag of pectin. Like a convicted felon in ancient Rome, it was time for the death match regarding my fear of gels. Sigh.
I started by doing a little research into what pectin is, what types are available and what those types are used for. With a little knowledge in hand, it seemed like I wasn’t going to be suffering a horrible death while my peers looked on, so to speak. I found out that pectin is really quite a fascinating thing and much easier to work with than I had previously thought.
By definition, pectin is a structural heteropolysaccharide found in the walls of plants that forms a colloidal system when combined with water. In simpler terms, pectin is a soluble fiber that forms a gel when you add water to it. Some plants have more pectin in them, some less. Apples and citrus fruits have the highest concentrations of pectin in them and are oftentimes the sources for what you will find on the shelves at your grocery store, but other fruits such as guavas, plums and cranberries have pretty high pectin levels naturally as well.
Some soft fruits (such as cherries, blackberries and strawberries) have little pectin in them so if you want to make jams and jellies out of them you’ll need something to help them along. The same goes for vegetables, like hot pepper jelly. If this is the case, you have two broad categories of pectin to choose from, high methoxyl pectin and low methoxyl pectin. The high methoxyl pectin needs acid and sugar for it to work and is most commonly used for traditional fruit preserves. Low methoxyl pectin needs calcium present for the gelling process to work, which makes it better for low or no sugar preserves.
In those broad categories of pectin, there are other smaller subcategories as well. In the high methoxyl pectin category there is rapid set pectin and slow set pectin. The rapid set variety is better for jams that have suspended items within because they pectin sets up quickly, holding that fruit. Slow set high methoxyl pectin is best used for clear jellies and smooth preserves where nothing is being suspended. Easy enough.
Low methoxyl pectin doesn’t come in a rapid or slow set variety, but the speed and stiffness of the gel can be determined by how much calcium is in the recipe and if a sequestering agent is used as well. For low methoxyl pectin to gel a minimum amount of calcium needs to be present in the recipe, but once a saturation point has been reached with that pectin, the excess calcium will cause the strength of the gel to decline. Sequestering agents are compounds that combine with the calcium to chelate them, and thus make the recipe less difficult to work with. In layman’s terms, this basically means that you’re adding a chemical to your calcified pectin mixture to have some of those calcium bits form other molecules so as not to cause your preserves to fail. The more of a sequestering agent that is used in a recipe means that the gel will form at a lower temperature but more slowly than without using one. This type of pectin may seem more persnickety to work with, but the useful applications of it are perfect for sugar free preserves as well as preserves that might have dairy products in them. (I doubt you’ll ever find milk jelly, but it might work well for a completely vegetarian panna cotta or something.)
Anyways, now on to the thermoreversible part of the pectin I saw. A lot of research (and dictionary referencing later) I figured out that a thermoreversible pectin is a modified version of pectin. technically, thermoreversible pectin is an amidated pectin. Amidated pectin is simply pectin that has been treated so that it’s more tolerant of calcium present in the recipe, they form a different type of colloid system and it resolidifies if heated. Basically, thermoreversible pectin is mellower and easier to work with. Thermoreversible pectin won’t be as prone to becoming grainy if oversaturated in a recipe due to its structure and if the thermoreversible pectin level is too high (resulting in a very stiff product) it’s easily remedied by adding a touch of warm water to the preserve and letting it cool down again to form a more spreadable product.
SO! A giant mouthful later, I discovered that thermoreversible pectin is basically a good catchall pectin to use and great for beginners. Consider it the labrador retriever of jelly making supplies- it works well for just about everyone. If you can find thermoreversible pectin in stores, which can be difficult as it’s geared towards professional chefs, it may be worth trying as opposed to those ancient bottles of Certo in the A&P. (Shop where professional cooks shop for weird odds and ends, those stores may know where to find it if they don’t have it.)
I suspect my apartment will shortly become ground zero for toast toppings.