15 August 2009

It's the sugar pectin!

I only recently became aware of the fact that you can buy special sugar for making jellies, preserves, and jams — gelées et confitures — at the supermarkets in France. It costs more than plain granulated sugar, but then it contains pectin, which helps thicken the jelly. The other ingredient in the product, besides sugar (98.7%) and fruit pectin, is citric acid.

Too much jelly, but it is so good.

I had thought about trying to buy some pectin, so that my jellies and jams would be less runny, but I hadn't seen any in the supermarkets here in Saint-Aignan. I was also being kind of a purist about it. Me, need pectin? No, there's plenty in the fruit I'm picking. A few years ago, I made quince jelly — gelée de coings — and the first batch didn't jell sufficiently, in my opinion. The next batch I made, I boiled until it reached a temperature of 225ºF (107ºC) and it jelled perfectly. I concluded that cooking it until it reached that high temperature was the key to good jelly-making.

Jelly-making sugar, with pectin and citric acid in it

But when I tried it later with other jellies and jams, the end product was still too liquid. I made a huge batch of apple jelly a couple of summers ago, and it came out great — thick and jiggly. They say apples contain large amounts of pectin, and I boiled not just the apple pulp but the skins and seeds as well. That's where the pectin is. It worked great.

A couple of months ago, I made cherry preserves — confiture de cerises — using the good sour cherries from our neighborhood trees. I followed a recipe that said the way to be successful was to pit the cherries, put them in a big pot and just barely cover them with water, and boil that for 10 or 15 minutes. Then strain off the juice, put the cherries themselves aside, and make jelly with the cherry juice.

Plums from the trees in the back yard

To thicken the cherry jelly, this particular recipe called for adding a good amount of apple jelly — a pint or more, for the pectin — into the mixture. Once you boiled the cherry and apple mixture for a few minutes, you add the cooked cherries back in and you put the confiture up in sterilized jars. The result was supposed to be a thick jelly with pieces of not-overcooked fruit in it. Mine didn't really jell, though. It stayed too liquid. And that was after I boiled the juice until it reached a pretty high temperature.

Back to square one. In July an old friend from Nomandy visited, with one of her neighbors. We were talking about jellies and jams, for some reason. The friend's neighbor asked me if I had bought special sucre gélifiant at the supermarket for my jelly-making. That such a product existed was news to me. I soon went to SuperU to check out the sugar shelves. There it was — but it was expensive. At something like €2,25/kg, it was more than twice as expensive as regular granulated sugar (€0.89/kg). I passed.

Here are the directions, in French of course.

On the way home, I stopped to buy a few things at the Ed hard-discount store. There I saw Ed's brand of jelly-making sugar, and it was only €1.50/kg. I wasn't even planning to make any more jam or jelly until autumn, when the apples will be ripe. Apple jelly is easy to make. And if I could get some quinces, I'd make quince jelly too. Now the neighbors' tree is covered in quinces, and they've said I can have an many as I want.

The fruit and sugar macerate together for hours
before getting cooked.

I ended up buying 4 kg of Ed's sucre gélifiant, figuring I would use it soon enough. And soon enough came sooner than I thought, when the plums on the trees around our garden shed started ripening. I was determined to ignore them, thinking there weren't that many of them anyway. And I had already made two batches of plum sauce this summer. "No more jelly!", I told myself.

One afternoon — it was when Susan and Simon visited recently — I made the grave mistake of tasting one of the plums off our trees. It was amazingly sweet and succulent. How could I possibly ignore such luscious fruit? Well, by just letting it all fall to the ground and get eaten by ants and wasps — that's how. It turned out I wasn't capable of doing that.

It's only six jars. Well, six more jars, in addition to
all the other ones already in the pantry.

A couple of days ago I went out and picked two kilos of the delicous ripe plums. I carefully pitted them, cutting away any soft spots. Some were excessively ripe, but they were in good shape. They smelled incredible. I kept thinking of the jar of perfectly jelled, sweet plum jam that Caroline's mom brought us when they came over for apéritifs a couple of weeks ago. How did she accomplish that? Is it some Dutch secret?

This time, to make the plum preserves, I followed the directions on the packages of Mi Perla sucre gélifiant. Mix together equal weights of the sugar and of ripe fruit, the package said. Do nothing but wait until the sugar completely dissolves in the liquid rendered by the fruit. (I ended up leaving the sugar on the fruit for nearly 24 hours, stirring it three or four times during that period.) After that, what you do is boil the mixture on high heat for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring constantly. That's all the cooking it needs.

At the end of the 5 to 7 minutes, skim the foam off the top of the jam. Ladle the jelly into sterilized jars and screw on the lids. Turn them upside down and let them cool that way. You'll hear the lids pop when they seal.

The resulting jelly is thick and... well, jelled. Now that it's had a chance to cool overnight, it doesn't move at all in the jars when I turn them upside down. Who knew? It's not magic. It's that pectin sugar. It works.

Now I have to persuade myself not to make any more jam or jelly. We have plenty. We don't even eat that much of the stuff.


  1. A most informative post. Not that I'm going to make jelly any time soon. And not that I believe you are not going to make more jelly in the near future. As someone said: when life gives you fruit, make jam!

  2. That is pretty much how my mother made the jam as far as I remember. Phoebe just told me that she thinks that the fruit was left to soak overnight in the pectin sugar and some sort of alcoholic drink. Maybe this is the Dutch secret to it being quite so good! we have a jar of the plun jam here in Reading and it is deliscious!


  3. I bet your house smelled soooo good! I love good jam and jelly.
    If you have too many, maybe a mail-order operation...? Never mind!
    When I wake-up at 4.30 am and read your blog, I get so envious.

  4. Your jam looks delicious! Your plums are questches (did you know?).
    I've got so much fruit here, that I can't eat another tarte. I'll have to make jam.

  5. I have also had problems reaching setting point with jams etc., for me it was always a very "hit and miss" situation. I tried to buy pectin at the supermarket but couldn't find it. Anyway, I also now use the special sugar for jams and jellies plus I buy a product called "Vitpris" It works like magic when mixed with the sugar and added to the fruit - after only 3 mins at boiling temperature you cool the liquid jam for a short while then pour it into the pots and it sets beautifully. Cheating perhaps but the only way I can make consistently well set jams!

  6. Is there a difference between jam and jelly? I'm thinking of jelly as clear, and jam as having maybe pulp or something that makes it thicker and less clear? I have never made either, but I'm quite impressed with your efforts and successes!

    In France, do you have to have a license of some sort to sell at the markets? Is it a complicated process? Would you ever consider doing that?


  7. brilliant to have sugar with pectin in it....i am a jam making novice & learn new things every yr....the hardest for me was fig preserves....cause i like the figs whole & not mush.....very tricky process to have them sweet but not disintegrated....a few slicesa of lemon in there helps....ur jelly looks lovely....I eat jelly on my bread & camembert or reblechon tranches

  8. We have the same jam overflow here, except that we're fortunate to be supplying three families.

    Sometimes I make plum jam with pectin, sometimes without. It's much easier with, and much cheaper without.

    The verification word is "restyme," but it's 8 am, so, no thanks.

  9. I am clearly not the only one who is suggesting you could sell our products (jams, jellies or in my case tomato sauce). How about it!

  10. Anonymous! You forgot "corn".
    Callie could sell kindling. Now I understand why you need a bigger car. (My watch is still on french time. I don't have the heart to change it).

  11. Friends gave me 5lbs. of figs last week. Fig preserves were too involved, so I dehydrated them-it took 24 hours! The jellies look delicious Ken. How are you going to preserve the corn?

  12. When I don't use pectin, I go by the temperature, and als the sheet and refrigerator tests to bve sureit is done.
    Sheet Test: Dip a cold metal soon in the boiling jam/jelly. Lift the spoon and hild it horizontally and edge down so the liquit runs off the edge. When done, it breaks from the spoon and sheets off. Not done, it is droplets.
    Refrigerator test: remove from heat. Drop some on a chilled plate. put back in freezer for one minute. Then push the mixture with your finger. If it wringles, it is done.

  13. Hey, I make better jams and jellies than I type these days!
    I make too much too and give a lot away. There is a French couple at the U of I vet school who are on my supply list!

  14. No, we don't plan to sell anything at the market. That would turn into work pretty fast. We're too lazy.

    Caroline, I should have thought to put a little eau de vie de mirabelles in my jam. Next time.

    Dedene, I just looked up quetsche and those are purple plums. Ours are greenish yellow. What might have fooled you is that I had picked just three purple plums off a neighborhood tree. They weren't very ripe so I just threw them in the jam pot with the plums from our trees, which I think might be reines-claudes.

    Nadège, is that 4:30 a.m. France time or California time?

    Carol, where do you buy the Vitpris?

    Judy, jam has bits or pulp of fruit in it whereas jelly is a translucent jell made with fruit juice only. Preserves are bigger pieces of fruit, even whole, in a kind of jelly, I think. In French, it's just confiture and gelée.

    Chris and Harriett, I've tried the cold plate method and that works too. But the pectin makes it a lot easier and gives more consistent results, I think. When I tried to make grape jelly using red wine grapes, I didn't use pectin and I ended up with a thick syrup instead of jelly. It's good but not what I expected. Harriett, what temperature do you go to?

    Martina, did you dry the figs in the oven?

    Melinda, I'll have to try some jam with cheese. I think I've had that once or twice in restaurants. Jam is also good with foie gras.

  15. The title of my post should have been "It's the pectin!"

  16. Hi Ken,

    I buy Vitpris at Intermarche, Noyers or at SuperU - it is usually on the same shelf as the sugar, it's about 1.80 for a box of 5 sachets.



  17. Well, I'm impressed! I suspect the equal quantities fruit and sugar helps. I think some instructions for jam in general cookbooks are a bit mean with the sugar because it looks like such an enormous amount. Our thermometer says jam temp is 105°C, and we use the cold plate / wrinkle test as described by Harriet and make sure the jam gets to temp so the sugar inverts.

    So far no probs with cherries and plums, although the cherry jam varied from quite stiff to thick runnyness, as the season progressed.

  18. I take the jams and jellies to 220 F and then test. We are at about sea level. Highre altitudes regire different temperatures.

    I made grape syrup once too. My mistake was to throw out the grape skins before cooking! The pectin is in the skins.
    Ken, do you want me to mail sure-jel?

  19. you can send some to us who are deprived of home made goodies

  20. Hi Ken,

    I asked a friend whose hobby is making jams, jellies, and preserves of all types. She uses Pomona pectin, which is citrus based and very effective. I have some and will pop it in the mail so you can give it a try. What she also suggested you try is adding a couple of lemons -- just the seeds and skins, not the fruit pulp or juice -- to your jams or preserves. Just tie them up in cheese cloth like a bouquet garni and you're in business.



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