Preserving Without Pectin is an Elevating Experience

Fruit, sugar, an instant-read thermometer―and your altitude

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Sunday at the Laguna Niguel Farmers Market, my son and I impulse-scored a flat of raspberries from OC Produce to turn into jam, since we were already planning to do the same with the first crop of apricots from our garden tree. Back in January, I made raspberry jam (also with OC Produce fruit), and while I haven’t quite run out, I do like to keep up my stock, especially since I’ve given three jars as gifts in the past couple of weeks.

One jar went to John Bennett, co-owner of the cheese, wine, and craft-beer emporium Vin Goat in Corona del Mar. John’s a CIA-trained pastry chef who likes to say he works the carb station, and a gateau Breton he made for Anne Willan’s appearance at the store last year was classic perfection. (Here’s a link to Willan’s recipe.) It turns out Bennett also makes preserves, which is not all that surprising—his professional training is the perfect complement to a boyhood spent on his family’s Missouri farm, where his mother and grandmother grew and canned their own produce. Recently, he’s been working with strawberries from famous Chino Farms in Rancho Santa Fe, which he says rival those from his childhood. I’ll be making strawberry preserves next, though with fruit from an O.C. farmers market. Take a look at Bennett’s blog on the Vin Goat website—a crème fraiche ice cream he posted recently matches up perfectly with homemade preserves.

I was interested to learn that John shares my most fondly held preserving practice: No added pectin. It’s exceedingly rare to meet a fellow traveler. Pectin’s the naturally-occurring agent in fruit that when combined with sugar causes jelling, and many preserving recipes call for adding it to ensure predictable results. Cooking fruit and sugar to the jelling point is a little more fuss, but retains bright fruit flavor and soft, spoonable texture—hallmarks of homemade preserves. Bennett says, “Putting pectin in preserves is like making hollandaise with glue.” It might get the job done, but that’s wine from a different bottle, as they say.

So how do you know when you’ve reached the jelling point? There are a few ways to test, starting with evaluating how the mixture drips from a wooden spoon, which is entirely too chancy for me. I use temperature. Somewhere near 220 degrees, you’ll achieve jel. Altitude matters: 220 is what to shoot for at sea level, but subtract 2 degrees for every 1,000 feet increase in elevation.  (Google Earth’s an easy way to check your own location.) My part of Trabuco Canyon, for example, is around 1,000 feet above sea level, which would mean a target of 218 degrees. I pull it at 216 or 217 degrees, though, because I like a softer set.

If you’re interested in canning, the “Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving” makes a great start—I’ve got a shelf full of canning books, but turn to my old copy often. It’s got recipes (with and without added pectin), and, importantly, all the steps that must be followed for safe canning. The Ball website’s got a ton of info, too. Or, take a class with master preserver Delilah Snell, owner of Road Less Traveled in Santa Ana—check the store’s website to see what’s on the docket. 

There are farmers markets in O.C. every day of the week except Mondays. Click here to use our searchable farmers market guide to find yours.

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