Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.

Berry worries

Planning a vacation around a garden is tough

July 1, 2008

I am annoyed by pectin. Well, not all pectin, and certainly not the type that occurs naturally in fruit. Rather, I’m talking about the stuff that comes in boxes. You think you need it, but you don’t. Those boxes look so important, but they’re not. In fact, boxed pectin belies the process of jam making, which for much of its history in the kettle has had no such addition.

Just read the introductions in the older editions of the Joy of Cooking on the subject of jams and jellies. They tell it like it is. Using boxed dry and liquid pectin requires tons more sugar then you should really ever use. The reason has something do to with how industry has translated large-scale systems into home-scale systems and, in the process, created a product no one really needs.

Evidently the process of cooking up large vats of fruit to render the greatest quantity of juice requires high temperatures. Those temperatures destroy natural pectin and so industry, always clever in the lab, came up with a solution: added engineered pectin and LOTS of extra sugar.

Of course, there’s the low-sugar pectin that folks find a miracle of modern science, but that product, when added to your fruit, lends a strange texture, and I’m not sure what’s in it. I have another solution: Use less sugar.

It’s strawberry season, finally.

Some folks choose to make jams (as opposed to jellies) without any pectin (homemade or otherwise), suggesting, as I have heard them, that pectin destroys the natural flavors of the fruit. This has not been my experience, but I have not done a side-by-side tasting.

And some say that, depending on the fruit you use, no pectin at all will result in a runny product which, again, some suggest is the only way you can get that fresh flavor. Again, I disagree. Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with a little pour of jam; it works nice in yogurt and as a sauce. It even makes its way nicely in the crevices of an English muffin. But generally speaking, I want the stuff to sit obediently on my toast.

So what do I do? Well, I’ve already posted a ton on my site about making your own natural pectins and will, in a few days, add a few updated recipes for using natural pectins in jams. Sorry, I’d like to give it to you right now, but I did a stupid thing: I went on vacation.

You’d think vacationing would be a good thing, and it is, but for backyard farmers it can be a little daunting. I thought I timed it right. With my preserving classes to consider and the kid’s schedule to pencil in, I had only a few weeks to choose from. I knew taking time off in August would be devastating to the tomato crop. I did that last year and learned my lesson.

This summer I would be smarter. I would leave after I’d harvested the backyard strawberry crop and before the much-awaited (and then damned) heat got underway. But no such luck. We didn’t have consistent sun till the day we left. So while we were bundled up in no-sun San Francisco, my strawberries were peaking behind the garden gate. And that makes me mad. Make mental note: No vacations in late June.

Which brings me, once again, to how urban farming constantly changes your life and perspectives. I can assure you, my strawberry crop was and is more important then San Francisco. I certainly put more work and anticipation into them. As anyone who grows them knows, seeing the first white blossoms is a thrill. Keeping the slugs at bay and hopping for good sun is a ritual. Seeing the green tight jewels turn to red is a tribute to the incredible good taste of the natural world and we, their willing slaves, do whatever must be done to encourage the graces of the bounty.

And so, when I suggested to my husband that he and son go on vacation without me, he gave me that you’ve-got-to-be-kidding me look which, given his total non-confrontational stance toward life, had the equivalent power of a screamfest. I relented without another word, since even I realized that not going would be a bit much. But I did think about it, and not just once.

So here I am, posting on this chilly morning on my last day of vacation, dreaming about my backyard. Hopefully the strawberries, currants, and raspberries I walked away from will not be too mad and will leave something on the bush, vine, and cane for me to relish. And it will be with those loyal soldiers that I will create the recipes I have been dreaming up during the trip. Strawberry-thyme with balsamic vinegar, maybe. Raspberry-currant with mint, perhaps. Be patient, my lovelies. Momma’s coming home.

There are 5 comments on this item
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1. by cafemama on Jul 2, 2008 at 10:29 AM PDT

thanks for writing this, harriet! i’ve been using the low-sugar pectin with 1/2 - 3/4 cup honey in my recipes and it’s been working fine (the texture seems ok) but i, too, wonder what’s in it. i think i might try your recipes instead!

2. by Gillian on Jul 4, 2008 at 10:08 AM PDT

I have only made strawberry jam but it was pectin-less. Just strawberries, lemon juice and sugar. I felt like it was a lot of sugar though. The recipe called for equal parts, by weight, of strawberries and sugar. It came out lovely though.
Pectin always freaked me for some reason...
here is a bit about our strawberry day

3. by Fasenfest on Jul 5, 2008 at 2:08 PM PDT

So I will post this on my website but here is what I know now.

Get a hold of some currant or gooseberries. They are high in pectin and will punch up the low pectin quality of strawberries. Both currants and gooseberries are popping up in the market about now. Cook 1 cup of either (or mix them I suppose) with 3 cups water. Bring to a boil and then let simmer 20 - 30 minutes. Drain. Reserve juice. You can put the pulp in a sieve to try and get the remaining goodness from the peels and seeds (which is where a lot of the pectin lives) but it is not necessary.

Now, marinate 2 lbs (6 cups) washed and sliced strawberries or raspberries in 2 cups sugar. That cuts the sugar a lot from traditional recipes. (C-mama, you can use honey).

This is the time to throw in herbs or lemon peel or ginger or whatever you dream up. Marinate overnight in the fridge. Stir one or two times and take out of the fridge for an hour or two before cooking up. It will help render more of the juices. You will get about 6 cups marinated berries the next day from all the juice that was rendered from the berries. Maybe more if you use honey. Not sure though.

Remove herbs if you added them. Add 3 T lemon juice and 1 cup of reserved currant or gooseberry juice. Bring to boil in wide pot (important) at least three times the hight of your berry mixture so it can boil off. If you don’t have a pot wide and tall enough (but not too tall) it will just take longer to come to gel cause the moisture in the berry mixture will take longer to cook down. What I tell students is that, in the end, you are making a syrup that your berries will be suspended in. That is what jam is about. So you need to cook off the moisture in the fruit and then cook down the syrup. That is process and time frame that is generally divided in two - cooking down moisture in fruit the first part (don’t stir) and cooking the syrup the second part (stir occasionally at first and then more towards the end to prevent scorching). Sometimes the entire process takes me 15 - 20 minutes (again time split in half for each process) and sometimes longer up to 25 or so. It has everything to do with the moisture in the fruit, the amount of liquid that is rendered, and, by adding currant juice, the added liquid in the juice. The size of the pan and the temp. under the pan also plays a part. You want it to be as high as you can without making the mixture overflow which it would love to do. (C-mama, honey has an additional liquid quality so your time may increase. Use a honey that is non assertive I think).

In the end the currant juice lends a lovely flavor to the jam and helps it gel because of the pectin. Actually, I have not used the gooseberries but someone should and report on the matter.

This recipe is not the same as using the pectin I offer on my site but that is cause I figured not too many folks can find early drop or crabapples yet which is what I generally use. I make up a huge batch in late summer and have it when I am making strawberry jam the following spring.

So try currants or gooseberries for the added kick early season berries need.
Best of luck and let me know how it goes.

4. by cafemama on Jul 5, 2008 at 2:36 PM PDT

thank Harriet! i saw your note about currants having lots of pectin in them the other day and i picked up currants at the market this morning -- must have been reading your mind.

i tried your low-sugar strawberry jam recipe from the web site, using 2/3 cup rapadura sugar (dehydrated cane juice, it’s supposed to have all kinds of beneficial minerals & stuff and be way better for your body than normal sugar), and it worked beautifully. i also tried it with raspberries and it was delicious. i’ve also been collecting green apples to make pectin from the enormous tree that the neighbor and i share -- so far i only have four ounces so i’m so happy to have an idea of how to do it with currants.

5. by Fasenfest on Jul 5, 2008 at 3:58 PM PDT

Great work C-mama. I can always count on you to get innovative.

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