The Mystery of Pectin

  • Posted by: margaret
One of many jars of strawberry sauce in our pantry
One of many jars of strawberry sauce in our pantry

Every year, our family celebrates the Fourth of July with an outing to the pick-your-own strawberry fields in the next town over. In the weeks preceding, the girls and I usually pick the majority of our haul, but we like to go at least once as a family so Karl can share in the stained fingers and sweaty backs, and enjoy the treat of hot berries, fresh from the field.

This year, strawberry season came so early that by the time we got out there, the pickin’s were slim. What were left were hot, jammy berries, nearly cooked by the sun. (Reminding me of the recipe for “Sunshine Strawberry Preserves” that I’ve always found off-putting in my 1964 copy of the Joy of Cooking: Sprinkle sugar on strawberries, heat until boiling, then set in the sun for a few days until they turn to jam.) Between the four of us, we picked ten pounds that were so juicy they left a puddle in the back of the car.

At home, I set to work cleaning berries to make a year’s worth of preserves. I followed a recipe and added sugar and some lemon juice, bringing the mixture to a boil until a thick head of pink foam climbed the sides of the pot. I tested it for sheeting, but no gel. Straying from my recipe, I added a little packaged pectin, but still no gel. Finally, I gave up on getting it to gel and sealed the sauce in jars–the preserves were delicious and I was afraid I’d overcook them if I kept fiddling around.

I’ve consulted several cookbooks, two of whom warn that using over ripe berries will prevent jam from setting. Harold McGee’s explanation of pectin in On Food and Cooking left me with more questions than answers. This Saturday, Master Preserver Allison Duffy will be teaching a workshop on strawberry jam at the farm–I’m hoping she’ll unlock the mystery of pectin! There are still spots left, so contact us if you’re interested in signing up.

Author: margaret