Pectin is a natural and commercially produced essential ingredient in preserves, like jellies and jams. Without pectin, jellies and jams won't gel. Pectin is a type of starch, called a heteropolysaccharide, that occurs naturally in the cell walls of fruits and vegetables and gives them structure. When combined with sugar and acid it is what makes jams and jellies develop a semi-solid texture when they cool. Some fruits, like apples and quince, and the rinds, seeds, and membranes of citrus are naturally very high in pectin. Commercial pectins are usually made from citrus rinds. It is sold as a dry powder and in liquid form and can be expensive.
There are two main types of pectin: high methoxyl (HM) and low methoxyl (LM). High methoxyl pectin is the most common type and is often labeled "fast- or rapid-set" or "slow-set." Fast-set HM is best for chunky jams and marmalades while slow-set HM works well for clear jellies. Low methoxyl (LM) pectin, which uses calcium instead of sugar to create a set, is good for low- or no-sugar preserves. It is often labeled as "light" or "made for low-sugar recipes."
Among these two types of pectin, there are several different varieties, and each behaves differently. Dry pectin comes in multiple forms, including regular (or classic), fast set and slow set (high methoxyl), no or low sugar (low methoxyl), MCP (modified citrus pectin)—which is similar to low and no sugar—and instant or freezer jam pectin. The liquid is only offered in a regular version and is similar to the regular dry pectin but is pre-dissolved to avoid clumping.
Because different types of pectins behave differently, it's best to use the version listed in the recipe you are using. If you find the jam or jelly set too hard or too soft, you can always adjust the amounts accordingly.
Varieties: powder and liquid, instant and low-sugar
Main Component: citrus rinds
Most Common Use: jams and jellies
Pectin is used to thicken recipes that include low-pectin fruits. Some fruits, especially very ripe ones, have relatively little pectin. Strawberries and raspberries, for example, are easily squashed, demonstrating how they are low in the "glue" that helps build the fruit's structure. For these fruits, without added pectin, making a properly-set jelly or jam may require adding lots of sugar, cooking for excessively long times, or both, which results in a jam or jelly that tastes less like the fruit. Adding some pectin is a healthier alternative to adding more sugar, and shouldn't noticeably change the flavor.
To find out how much pectin is in the fruit, combine one tablespoon of grain alcohol and one teaspoon of the fruit's juice. If it sets up firm, it's high in pectin. If the mixture becomes a loose, gelatinous mass, it's medium on the pectin scale. If it doesn't set at all, or forms slivers of gel, it's low in pectin.
Pectin can also be used in other dishes that require food to gel or thicken and as a fat substitute in some baked goods.
How to Cook With Pectin
The type of pectin being used will determine how it is added to a recipe. High methoxyl pectin needs to be cooked to a high temperature (220 F) in combination with acid and sugar to form a gel, while low methoxyl can be activated at room temperature. Therefore, HM pectin will be added to the hot fruit mixture early on; the LM pectin is often mixed with a little sugar and added to the hot fruit later in the recipe. Liquid pectin is poured into the pot of hot fruit mixture almost at the end of cooking.
Make sure not to overcook the recipe once the pectin is added as boiling beyond the gel point, or not stirring enough, will help break down the pectin.
What Does It Taste Like?
Pectin should not add any flavor to a recipe, but depending on the brand could contribute a little bitterness. Homemade pectin will taste like the fruit it is made from.
Where to Buy Pectin
Pectin powder and liquid can be found in large supermarkets along with the canning jars. Pectin products can also be purchased in stores such as Walmart and Target, as well as online. The powder is sold in canisters and pouches; the liquid is packaged in multiple pouches that are then sold by the box.
Dry and liquid pectin need to be stored differently. The powder can be kept in the pantry and is best if used within the year; if saved for the next canning season it may not perform as well. Liquid pectin should be stored in the refrigerator and used within a week.
Homemade pectin can be kept in the refrigerator for up to three days. For longer storage, the pectin can either be frozen or preserved using a boiling water bath canner; frozen will last up to six months while the canned up to one year.
Nutrition and Benefits
Unlike gelatin, which is made from animal parts, pectin comes from fruit. As a result, pectin is both vegetarian and vegan. Pectin does not contain any calories, fat, or sodium, nor does it have any vitamins or minerals.