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This 101, on making pectin, comes from HOMEGROWN member Anne, the kitchen scientist, organivore, urban homesteading neophyte, throwback foodie, tinkerer, keeper of cookies, and, yep, mom behind Food Retro. You might remember Anne from her excellent 101 on how to build your own self-watering container. Thanks so much for spreading the pectin power, Anne, and please keep the good ideas coming!

Do you love making apple pies, applesauce, and apple butter? Do you enjoy squeezing every last penny out of your produce and mourn the waste of all those cores, rinds, seeds, and peels that go into the compost bin? Do you make homemade jams and jellies? Do you want to add another notch to your “been there, done that” belt? Welcome to homemade pectin!

 

WHAT IS PECTIN?

Pectin is a polysaccharide and water-soluble fiber that is part of plants’ cell walls. It occurs naturally in many fruits, especially apples and citrus. Extracted pectin is used as a thickening agent in jams and jellies since it forms a very thick, clear, shiny gel.

 

I'VE SEEN ALL THESE PECTIN-FREE RECIPES FOR JAM, SO I THOUGHT PECTIN WAS BAD. 

Absolutely not. It’s perfectly safe and natural. Pectin sometimes comes under fire for use in jams and jellies because it requires a fairly large amount of sugar and a little bit of acid to set. While there is some wiggle room, you’re going to have boundaries when you cook with pectin of either a store-bought or a homemade variety; it simply will not set if you don’t meet its requirements. If you’re trying to cut sugar from your diet or if you consider yourself a bit of an artiste when it comes to homemade jam, you might not like playing by pectin’s rules—but going rogue means you’ll end up with syrup.

 

The other thing that puts pectin on some people’s hit list is that store-bought varieties come with ingredients added to improve uniformity in performance and taste. The added gunk varies, but it commonly shows up in the form of citric acid, sodium citrate or potassium citrate (for acidity), and sodium benzoate (preservatives). What’s the source of this stuff? Who knows. Dextrose, usually commercially manufactured from corn sugar, is also a common ingredient—a big no-no if you’re trying to avoid GMOs and high fructose corn syrup. Sugar-free pectin is even more chemically strange, but we won’t go there.

 

All of which makes homemade pectin all the more appealing! As long as you’re OK with sugar, there’s no reason to avoid pectin, if you make your own.

 

HEADS UP: HOMEMADE PECTIN IS NOT CERTO OR SURE-JELL! 

Depending on dozens of factors—including what you use to make it, what fruit you add it to, how hard a set you like, and how long you boil it—pectin can be a bit of an adventure in preserving, and you have to be flexible in using it. Since each batch will have its own taste and personality, you’ll need to test and adjust recipes. But don’t worry: As long as you’re comfortable reading the signs of a good set and using ratios as a guideline, not a law, you’ll be fine!

 

WHAT DO I NEED TO MAKE PECTIN? 

Glad you asked! A big pot. A little water. And apples! Lots of apples. Sometimes citrus, but we’ll get to that later. Let’s stick to apple pectin for now.

 

Pectin levels in apples can vary considerably from unripe to ripe, type to type, and tree to tree. You don’t want to use ripe or overripe sweet varieties for making pectin. Best choices for pectin are crab apples; sour, small, unripe apples that have fallen early; and scraps including cores, seeds, and peels. 

 

The scraps are where the pectin concentration is highest. Throw them in a bag and save them in your freezer until you have enough for a pectin batch. If you’re using lots of peels and cores, try to add at least a few whole “reject” apples, since they’ll yield a better tasting end product.

 

If you’re hard pressed, you can use any whole, tart apple, such as Granny Smith. This is a sad waste of good apples, though, and requires a lot more reducing because the tastiest part of the apple also has the least pectin. If you don’t have enough cores and peels, buy more apples, peel and core them, and freeze the tasty parts for pies—or make crock-pot apple butter!

 

STILL WITH ME? HERE'S WHAT TO DO.

1. Quarter any whole apples and put them and your scraps in a large stock pot. Fill with just enough water to cover.

2. Bring the pot to a high boil and reduce to a simmer, uncovered.  Stir periodically. You want to keep going until the cores are mushy. You should be able to mash them against the side of the pot with a spoon. This stage can take a minimum of an hour but probably more like two to three hours.   

 

3. Prepare your sieve and receptacle. This will look either like a bucket or a bin with an old t-shirt fastened to the top as a strainer or like a colander lined with several layers of cheesecloth sitting on top of your bucket or bin. Sterilize the cheesecloth or shirt by boiling it or pouring boiling water through it ahead of time.

 

4. Remove the mashed apple mixture from heat. If you’re pouring into a plastic bucket or container, make sure the mixture has cooled enough so that you don’t melt your container. Pour the apple mush into your sieve and cover to keep curious kids/animals/bugs out.

 

5. Wait for the slimy liquid to drip out. This is your pectin! This will take anywhere from a couple of hours to overnight. Don’t force the liquid out by pushing it because you’ll force some of the fiber through your sieve, and then your pectin will be extra cloudy and carry more apple fiber into your end product. Wait for it!

 

6. When the draining is done, dispose of the pulp. Bonus points if you mill the seeds and peels out and use the fiber, maybe as a baking filler.

 

7. Test your pectin using rubbing alcohol. (See “How do I know my pectin is done?” below.)

 

8. If your pectin fails the alcohol test below, transfer your pectin stock to a clean pot and bring it back up to a boil over high heat. The goal here is to reduce the pectin so that it’s concentrated enough to use. Test your pectin periodically using the alcohol test.

 

9. When the pectin reaches your desired concentration, you can refrigerate it until use or preserve it by water-bath canning for ten minutes (following your canning guide, of course) or by freezing it for up to one year.

 

HOW DO I KNOW MY PECTIN IS DONE? 

If you’re using lots of whole apples, you may need to reduce your liquid up to 50 percent or more. If you’re producing from mostly peels and cores, you may find that you don’t have to do any additional reduction at all. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to test your pectin by using rubbing alcohol.

 

Pour a little pectin into a bowl and chill it. This test will not work with hot pectin. Pour rubbing alcohol (70 percent isopropyl) into another bowl then pour the cold pectin into the alcohol. Sufficiently concentrated pectin will congeal in the alcohol within a few seconds and will produce a solid blob that can be removed with a fork. 

 

Do not eat or drink the tested pectin or the contents of the bowl. Dispose of it safely.

 

The pectin’s color is not an indicator of doneness but rather of the source of the pectin and how much it is reacting to its environment (mostly the pot and applied heat). I have found that my pectin reacts when heated in certain metal pans and will turn a pink or a pinkish brown. If I reheat it in my stockpot or my glassware, it stays a shade between pale lemony yellow and yellow-pink.

 

I MADE PECTIN! NOW WHAT DO I DO WITH IT? 

There are few hard and fast rules and ratios when making jam with homemade pectin. They’re more like rules of thumb. You’re going to have to experiment in scale depending on the quality of your pectin, the hardness of your desired set, and the type of fruit you’re making jam from.

 

The one important rule for homemade pectin is to add it at the beginning of your cook with some lemon juice, usually at least 2 or 3 tablespoons per batch. The sugar is best added after you’ve hit a boil and the fruit has softened to your preference. 

 

You will want to start with a minimum of 4 tablespoons of pectin per cup of fruit or fruit juice (for a loose set and/or naturally high-pectin fruits) and work your way up to a full cup of pectin per cup of fruit (for a hard set and/or low-pectin fruits). 

 

Keep track of the amount of pectin you’ve used, because you need the final ratio of pectin to sugar to fall between 1:1 and 5:7, depending on the amount of pectin already in what you’re making and how hard you want your set to be. Most complaints I’ve seen about homemade pectin not setting properly involve people using more pectin than sugar.

 

As your fruit syrup thickens, test the gel by looking for spoon-sheeting and by pouring onto a cold saucer. The finished product will be glossy and thick. Depending on your desired set, it either will wrinkle when you touch it after a few minutes’ rest (hard set) or, if you run your finger through it, it will be slow or fail to refill the space you left behind (loose set).

 

CITRUS PECTIN: WAIT, WHAT? 

Oh, yes, citrus seeds and the inner white membranes are also a great source of pectin—and one usually relegated to the compost bin. Freeze them! Save them! Citrus pectin’s flavor can be more pronounced than apple pectin due to the slight bitterness of the pith, so bear this in mind if you’re not making a nice Meyer lemon or orange jelly. On the upside, you can make candied orange and lemon peels with the boiled husks when you’re done extracting the pectin.

 

To make citrus pectin, boil hulls and seeds as you would when using apples and test the pectin the same way in the alcohol. As with apple pectin, citrus pectin can be stored via freezing or canning.

 

For some looser-set high-pectin jams, you may even find that adding a cheesecloth packet filled with some salvaged lemon seeds to your boiling jam will give you enough pectin to set small batches.

 

START SMALL AND DON'T BE DISCOURAGED IF IT FLUBS. 

If something goes awry, adjust your ratio of pectin to sugar or increase the volume of pectin in the recipe (and add sugar accordingly) and try, try again! Thankfully, my failures have been fairly limited. I’ve chalked this up to luck and the fact that I make small batches, so for me a fail is no big deal.

 

If your jam is too thick, try adding boiled apple or white grape juice gradually until you reach your desired consistency then proceed with the canning process.

 

If your jam doesn’t set at all, well, a failed set may be salvageable. After heat and fruit, there are only three factors involved—pectin, sugar, and acid—so you might address problems with a little more lemon juice or sugar. Or you might opt to wait. I’ve read posts on various sites saying that a surprise set can occur days, weeks, or even upwards of a month after canning.

 

In any case, no need to fret. If your jam fails to set, declare it syrup (as Mother Nature obviously intended it to be) and proudly serve it over pancakes!

SPEAK UP!

Got a pressing pectin question? Or a suggestion to share? Post it below and keep the conversation rolling! Have you taken a shine to apple projects? Check out the Apple Molasses and Five Ways to Preserve Apples 101s. You might also give the Small-Batch Canning 101 a gander, and for more from Anne, don't miss her Self-Watering Container 101. You can always find more things to cook, preserve, plant, grow, make, craft, and simmer in the HOMEGROWN 101 library.

ALL PHOTOS: ANNE RADCLIFFE/FOOD RETRO

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Anne, this is soooo cool!  Thanks for sharing.  I've been making jam without pectin because I didn't want to buy it but now I know what I'll do whilst making a batch of applesauce.  

You are welcome!  I ended up with well over two quarts from the scraps of about 15 or 20 pounds of apples.  It will keep you in pectin a looooong time.  In fact... if you want to raid my freezer... lol!

Hey, I might be tempted, don't we live near each other?  



Anne Radcliffe said:

You are welcome!  I ended up with well over two quarts from the scraps of about 15 or 20 pounds of apples.  It will keep you in pectin a looooong time.  In fact... if you want to raid my freezer... lol!

Yup, just about an hour away down in Hammertown ;)  

Jonathan Spee said:

Hey, I might be tempted, don't we live near each other?  

Thank you for the detailed guidance!!! This is something I've always wanted to do, and as I was reading it I suddenly realized that-- as a mother of two littles-- my fridge is always full of half eaten apples! Perfect pectin making material! And I never thought of keeping the scraps in the freezer until I had enough. That is way my style.

I do have to plug Pomona's Pectin though, for anyone who wants a super easy, completely natural pectin. It's even easier than regular commercial pectin, and you can decide just how much sugar you want to use, including none if you like it that way. And it's a nice hippie company from the 70's. It's what I always used to use. 

The past few years I have started doing without any added pectin, and have been surprised at how well it works, even for supposedly low pectin fruits. But they do turn out "loose" and I wouldn't mind tightening them up a bit. I am definitely going to try your apple pectin. Thanks again!

I don't recall ever seeing it here in the Great White North, but then again I didn't look all that hard either.  Like you, I just went the all-sugar route.  I will see if my local hippie store carries it ;)  Thanks for the FYI!

Calamity Jane said:

I do have to plug Pomona's Pectin though, for anyone who wants a super easy, completely natural pectin. It's even easier than regular commercial pectin, and you can decide just how much sugar you want to use, including none if you like it that way. And it's a nice hippie company from the 70's. It's what I always used to use. 

Hello! I cooked down my apple scraps for 2 1/2 hours and the cores started to mush pretty easily. There was quite a bit of liquid in the mixture when I was pouring into my strainer with cheesecloth and I figured I should pour that liquid off as it looked more like apple-y water to me. Was this wrong? Does this liquid turn into pectin or did I just not cook it down long enough? The water was barely covering the apples at the beginning of the cooking down process. 

Thanks for the post! I sell jam at market and use a billion apples..I used to just throw the scraps in my chicken pen. This is much more useful for me.

Hi Tiffany! The strained liquid contains your pectin! It will look yellow to pink and feel like slimy water to the touch. The apple mass left over in the strainer is refuse, good to be composted or then sent to the chicken pen. :) Chill a small amount of the liquid in a shallow bowl and test it with the alcohol method. If the cold pectin does not form a clear gel that you can fork out, you will have to reduce the liquid a bit further. 

Hope this helps!


Tiffany Mathews said:

Hello! I cooked down my apple scraps for 2 1/2 hours and the cores started to mush pretty easily. There was quite a bit of liquid in the mixture when I was pouring into my strainer with cheesecloth and I figured I should pour that liquid off as it looked more like apple-y water to me. Was this wrong? Does this liquid turn into pectin or did I just not cook it down long enough? The water was barely covering the apples at the beginning of the cooking down process. 

Thanks for the post! I sell jam at market and use a billion apples..I used to just throw the scraps in my chicken pen. This is much more useful for me.

Anne,

This helped 100%! I'm so sad I threw away almost half of my first batch but after testing what was left, I MADE PECTIN! I do a lot of little projects like these frequently but I'm so happy about this one because it will actually save me tons of money and time. Thanks again for your knowledge!

You are welcome. This made my day! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading. :)

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