I have an ongoing romance with the notion of apples. Maybe even more than with the apples themselves. Ruddy cheeked and fragrant, apples are a treat for both the eye and the palate. And the variety of projects apples inspire in us: festivals, cider hard and sweet, sauce, butter, pie, dried, spiced, stuffed, baked, fried, vinegar, wine, cakes, the possibilities truly are endless.
I realize I’m jumping ahead with the apple talk just when the long-awaited peaches are hitting their stride. Apples are the fruit of fall here in Pennsylvania. Crisp, snappy days = crisp, tart apples. Trust me; I’m never one to rush a seasonal moment, but there is a timely reason I’d like to talk about apples today.
Raising great apples is an art that fortunately is practiced with care by knowledgeable orchardists around here. I’m not one of them, but I am enthusiastic about the possibility. Fortunately for me, apples are pretty tough and for the most part want to thrive. If I can just figure out how to stay out of their way, I should have more than enough for our needs. That is if I can keep some cloven hooved Ladies we know out of the trees….
One little considered industrial use for apples is the making of commercial pectin. This pectin is mostly imported in bulk from Europe and packaged in the United States. But really, what is it? As it turns out, pectin is a water-soluble substance found in the tissues of all fruits, though some have much more than others. It acts as a thickening and jelling agent. Typically, pectin is extracted either from tart apples or the white pith found under the peel of citrus fruit, both naturally high in pectin. As the citrus pith tends to retain a bit of bitterness, most commercial pectin is derived from apples. Commercial pectin was a great boon to many overworked home preservers upon its introduction in the early 1900’s. It’s use made preserving much more forgiving and yielded more standard, reliable results.
The great pectin debate among jammers is an interesting one. Myself, I tend to pass on the commercial pectin, but I don’t really have any super scientific reason for my avoidance. I just really don’t like stiff, rubbery jam or jelly and going without commercial pectin gives a gentle, softer texture that I love. And, a failed batch of jam isn’t really a crises in my book – I love ice cream topping, glazes and syrup almost as much, so what’s the big deal?
Smugly confident with my anti-commercial pectin decision, I read Linda Amendt’s most helpful book, Blue Ribbon Preserves. Linda is firmly in favor of using commercial pectin, particularly in its liquid form. She is also decidedly against the use of homemade pectin stock. If you haven’t read her book, and you are a student of the science of preserving, you really should. It’s indispensable in my kitchen not just for the recipes (which are plentiful and good) but for the why’s and insider tips that help me deviate safely. Needless to say, Linda cast more than a shadow of doubt on my opinionated prejudice against commercial pectin.
I think of making jam and jelly as a Devotion and form of gratitude rather than an assembly line process. Commercial pectin is a shortcut, an equalizer that lowers the quality of the excellent and raises the quality of the poor to achieve a consistent good enough. A bailout of sorts.
It makes me sad that consistent has come to define good with regard to food in America. Agreed, embracing true regional and artisanal food means risking a really disappointing experience from time to time. Maybe even the occasional bellyache. But, that’s the price I’m willing to pay to enjoy that sublime surprise you’ll rarely find at any chain restaurant or grocery.
If you have an apple tree of your own, or a friend willing to share theirs, apple pectin stock is a great way to use the immature, tart apples that fall or are thinned mid summer. Losing excess apples makes the remaining crop healthier and the fruits larger. Using the unripe green apples to make home-made pectin stock makes sure nothing goes to waste.
Forgive my geekiness, but I think that’s pretty exciting in spite of what Linda Amendt thinks. I use the apple pectin stock to glaze sweet pastries and savory roasted meats and make preserves and jelly from fruits, herbs or veggies without enough pectin to jell on their own. And, it’s already jelly, so if I never make anything further from it, it’s still good on toast or in cocktails. But my most pressing reason for making it is so I can use it later to make onion marmalade.
Pectin stock is not so much a recipe as a formula; learn the proportions and the procedure is easily adaptable. I’m thinking of tart green apples today, but stock can be made from other fruits as well; crabapple, red currant, citrus, certain plums, quince, gooseberries – anything with a high natural pectin content. The thing about apples that makes them so useful is that their flavor is mild and willing to take a back seat so other flavors can shine.
I love that I’m not importing something from afar, I know my apples haven’t been sprayed with pesticides and they’re free – my favorite price! I accept the variability of the levels of starch in my apples and the varying content of pectin from one apple to the next. If the worst penalty is using up a batch as ice cream topping or syrup when my jam didn’t set, that’s a penalty I can happily accept. Honestly, it’s rarely happened.
What about you? Commercial pectin or no? I’d love to hear your enlightened opinions in the comments below…..