When I first started making jam, I would get the occasional customer that would ask if I used added pectin. At that point, every single batch I’d ever made used commercial pectin, and I had no clue why anyone wouldn’t want to use it. Instead of taking 45 minutes to cook a batch of jam, it takes about 5, and I thought all of the jams I’d made tasted great. Over time, however, I’ve realized that understanding how to make jam without adding pectin means that I have a better grasp of the fundamental idea of what makes a delicious jar of jam.
Jams and jellies with no added pectin often have a softer set than those with commercial pectin, which often can have a set that is too firm and hard to spread. The other main improvement that I’ve noticed stems from paying attention to the acid content of the jam. Many fruits require the addition of lemon juice to boost the acid content and ensure a good set, but this also usually improves the flavor of the fruit; that lemony kick often adds depth, brightness, and complexity to what might otherwise be too sweet and simple.
Because of all this, these days I find myself actually tasting my jams to adjust seasoning before they go in the jar. It seems obvious, but commercial pectin teaches people to follow instructions blindly, and not adjust the jam for their own personal preference. (I would go so far as to say that they scare people into listening, implying that somehow you’ll get botulism and die if you change anything in the recipe).
The downfall of not adding pectin is that recipes are sometimes less predictable. They take longer to cook and may not set perfectly every time. Anyone who’s tried making jelly without added pectin probably has ended up with a batch or two of syrup, the result of jelly that doesn’t gel. Many people may leave the syrup as is, since it has plenty of practical applications (topping for ice cream or pancakes, poundcake glaze, etc.) but, well, I am a perfectionist and I don’t really eat a lot of pancakes.
Last fall I came upon a huge amount of quince from one of my neighbors, some of which ended up in a failed attempt at a star-anise scented quince jelly. I actually tried to re-cook it and it still didn’t set. In retrospect, I suspect that the issue was the acid content, and I needed more lemon juice. Instead of re-cooking the syrup a third time, it’s going into new batches of jam.
That’s the point of all of this. Do you have syrup in your pantry? Is it just sitting there, with FAILURE written all over it? Mine isn’t a failure anymore, it’s pectin stock. Quince is incredibly high in natural pectin, so adding a jar or two into a batch of marmalade or jelly helps make sure that for this new batch of preserves I will get a good set. Other high-pectin failed preserves, specifically apple jelly, apple jam, failed marmalades that are too syrupy, or quince jam, would all be excellent candidates for this method. (Disclaimer: Only use high quality syrups from your pantry. If the preserve has gone bad for some reason, don’t use it. If there are bubbles or mold in the jar, or if it smells bad, do not use it!)
Today, instead of making plain orange marmalade, I’m making star-anise scented orange marmalade in a quince jelly. The set is beautiful, and the flavor is mild and floral because of the quince. Now that quince is impossible to find, I’m thrilled to have a whole case of quince syrup.
Orange Marmalade with Quince and Star Anise
It’s hard to say if this recipe would work perfectly for someone else since my quince syrup might be slightly different from another syrup. This recipe could certainly serve as a jumping off point though. Any citrus could be used, and any any high-pectin syrupy preserve could be used instead of syrup in my pantry.
makes: about 6 half-pint jars
- 1 pint of quince syrup
- 1 pint of lemon juice (I freeze lemon juice during the winter so that I have a stash of cheap, high quality lemon juice to use later in the year)
- 4 c. prepared oranges (3 c. oranges sliced for marmalade soaked for 24 hours in 1 c. orange juice)
- 5 c. sugar
- 4 c. water
Bring boiling water canner to a boil and sterilize your jars.
Combine all ingredients in a large, non-reactive pot. Cook on high heat, stirring ocassionaly until marmalade reaches gel point (220 degrees on a candy thermometer, or alternately, you can put a few small plates in the freezer. When you think the marmalade is almost set, start testing it by putting a teaspoon of hot marmalade on the frozen plate. Wait 30 seconds, and run your finger through it. If it’s finished, your finger will make a line through the jelly and a few small wrinkles on the surface. If not, keep cooking and try again).
Ladle hot marmalade into hot, sterilized jars leaving 1/8″ head space. Wipe rims clean and screw on lids. Process half-pint jars for 5 minutes.
For more information on making jam with no added pectin, refer to the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, Edited by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine, parges 22-29.