Tools of the trade to test for pectin
So a new season is about to start. In only a few short days the elder flowers and gooseberries will be ready to make the first batch of this years jam. With that in mind I thought I ought to dust off the old pectin test blog, give it a quick spruce up and put it on the front page. Pectin of course is a substance found in fruit that helps jam to set. Along with acid and sugar it reacts to make the jelly like substance that holds jam together. The more you have in your fruit and indeed released into your jam liquor the better the end product will set. It is therefore necessary to test for pectin levels present in a new or unfamiliar recipe to be sure you will get the set you desire.
The Test for Pectin in Jam or Jelly Making:
- Follow the recipe (if you’ve got one) for the fruit boiling stage up to the point where you are instructed to add the sugar.
- Before adding the sugar take a half a teaspoon of the fruit juice and place it in an egg cup or preferably a shot glass and let it cool.
- Half fill the egg cup with rubbing alcohol (or methylated spirits depending on what you call it) and leave for a few minutes.
- If the juice is rich in pectin it will have formed a snotty mass at the bottom of the egg cup/shot glass. The degree of snottiness will vary from “hard ball” to still liquid depending on how much pectin is present.
A positive test for pectin!
So there you go, that is the official version that you will see in all the textbooks, if you look up “Test for Pectin.” Of course unless you are “Mr. Organised” there is a potential problem with this. So there you are having boiled all your fruit up as per instructed poised with your sugar and a row of beautifully sterilised jars and your test for pectin shows that your fruit juice doesn’t have much pectin in it. Well that means your going to have to add some either in the form of liquid pectin, granulated pectin or replace your ordinary sugar with pectin enhanced jam making sugar. And yes you’ve guessed it you haven’t got any of them just to hand! So all that fruit juice has got to stand around while you go to the shops and buy some, which might not be for a day or two – you get the idea!
A much better idea is to carry out the test for pectin prior to making up your full batch of juice. All you need to do is reduce the quantities in the recipe to “experimental” amounts. You will of course need a very small saucepan, I use a lovely copper bottomed roux pan that my wife bought me on one of our jaunts to the States. You do have to be careful of water loss when boiling such a small quantity of fruit and liquid. A tight fitting lid and attention to the pan at all times is very useful here.
The other advantage of doing the test for pectin prior to making your jam is, that if you have a fruit that is new to you and you either don’t fancy or can’t find any recipes on how to convert it to jam or jelly you can fiddle around at this stage with the fruit juice concentration to get a strength that is still good and tasty with the likelihood of a good set, whilst using the minimum of fruit necessary; thus giving the maximum yield of jam/jelly for a given amount of fruit. Confused? Let’s take an example and you’ll see what I mean.
Let’s use sea buckthorn berries for this example. They are a pain in the neck to harvest and so I haven’t got many hence I want to get the best bang for my buck, pardon the pun! Now I haven’t got a clue how much pectin these little fellas have in them, but they seem to me to be pretty close to red or black currants in terms of sourness, how thick their skin is and how juicy they are. Most recipes for these kinds of berries say to add about 1/2 weight for volume of water to the berries and simmer for 20 minutes or so. So I’ll take about 40 grams of berries and 20 mls of water and boil them up for 20 minutes making sure I lose as little water as possible by keeping the pan tightly covered and simmering low. Then I’ll perform the test for pectin above. If the juice turns good and snotty then I can take a small amount and dissolve some sugar in it and taste the resulting sweetened juice to see how intense the flavour is. If it blows my head off I know I can add a little more water, say another 10 mls, to dilute the juice down probably without losing the set. So I do that and bring to the boil again briefly and repeat the test for pectin to check it still sets and the taste test to check its not to weak and so on……
So can you see, by going round this experimental loop, I can keep increasing my amount of water to fruit ratio until I get an optimum flavour and set for the maximum amount of water and minimum amount of fruit; meaning I can make the most jam or jelly for my given amount of fruit.
This may sound confusing but I can assure you it isn’t. It will all become clear if you watch my demonstration of the process on my youtube channel at My Pickles and Jams and you can then try a test for pectin yourself not only for new fruits or berries you come across but if you want to change old recipes or mix fruit combos together to give interesting flavours. So go watch the demo and have fun with some kitchen chemistry of your very own!