Last summer, in the midst of rhubarb season, I was at the library thumbing through a yellowing Pennsylvania Grange cookbook, and a recipe for rhubarb conserve flavored with citrus peel zinged my mental taste buds. I hurried home, dug out my largest kettle and a dusty collection of canning jars and went to work. Soon I was biting into a piece of toast slathered with this lemony, rhubarb-pink, sweet-tart spread. Supermarket jam suddenly seemed plain and boring.
But, not having made jam for several years, I had forgotten how much sugar standard jam- and jelly-making requires. I decided it was time to look into some of the "light" pectins on the market. To understand how these low-sugar products work, I needed to brush up on the basics of preserving.
"What is pectin, anyway -- " A substance that binds the cell walls of plants, it's crucial to jelling, I learned. All preserves contain pectin of some kind, if only that found naturally in many fruits. Apples, for example, get A+ for pectin, and, in fact, can be combined with other fruits as the pectin source. Quinces are pectin-rich, too. Fruit, generally speaking, has more pectin when slightly underripe; so another approach is to include some underripe fruit (usually a quarter of the total) along with the ripe.
For those of us who'd be overly challenged by the above, there is commercially prepared pectin. These products, made from apples or citrus fruits, come in powdered and liquid forms.
To set, preserves also require acid, often present naturally in fruit -- again, especially unripe fruit. Some fruits, like peaches, come up short, however. So to foster jelling (and add flavor), many recipes add lemon juice.
And then there's the matter of sugar. Why does naturally sweet-tasting fruit seem to need so much sugar to become jam-- Sugar -- in larger quantities than is needed simply for sweetening -- aids jelling and prevents spoilage.
Thus, making low-sugar jam takes more than simply cutting down on sugar. Here's where the new modified pectins, labeled "light," "low" or "no sugar," come in. There are two types, and when I made several batches of raspberry jam last summer to compare them, both produced delicious results.
One category is what food scientists call low-methoxyl pectins -- rather a mouthful, so we'll call them LMPs. I tried two examples of this type: Pomona's Universal Pectin and Mrs. Wages Lite Home Jell. Like regular pectins, these products are made from fruit, but the pectin is extracted in a different way. It bonds with calcium to form a gel without sugar or acid being present, so you can make jams without any sweeteners or you can add sugar (or honey, fructose or artificial sweetener) to taste. Some LMPs contain the calcium; other brands are sold with calcium, which you mix with water before adding to the fruit. LMPs are easy to use but it's critical to follow the package directions or you may end up with a rubbery or grainy product that's hard to spread.
One drawback with LMP preserves is that, once opened, they possess a shorter refrigerator-life than jams and jellies made with more sugar. One manufacturer suggests using LMP preserves within two to three weeks of opening.
I also tested Sure-Jell Light, which exemplifies the second low-sugar type, called a modified high-methoxyl pectin (HMP). These pectins are extracted from slightly riper fruit than LMPs. HMPs require a specified amount of sugar for a good set (but lower than what's needed for standard pectins), and other sweeteners cannot be used. In my experiments, this amount of sugar proved greater than what I require for taste (and so more than the LMPs).
For my purposes, the low-methoxyl pectins offer several advantages. You can create your own recipes; package directions include guidelines for experimenting. You can also convert any traditional preserves recipe, using the sweetener of your choice, so I've included a low-sugar version of the rhubarb conserve in the recipes that follow.
There's also a make-over of my favorite apple butter. Typically, fruit butters are thickened without commercial pectin through long, slow cooking on the stovetop. This version, easily cooked down in the oven, has no added sugar and a rich, spicy flavor.
As opposed to jam, a conserve is made with bits of fresh fruit, plus dried fruits and/or nuts. Sometimes I add a cup of blanched, slivered almonds to this recipe.
This recipe yields five cups of mashed fruit. Using Pomona's Universal Pectin, I use 2 1/2 teaspoons pectin, two cups sugar and 2 1/2 teaspoons calcium water; this combination yields a conserve that jells firmly, yet spreads easily and keeps its fruity flavor.
Preparation time: 1 1/4 hours
7 c rhubarb, cut into 3/4-inch pieces
1 1/4 c seedless or golden raisins
1/2 c cold water
low-methoxyl pectin, per package instructions
2 c sugar (or to taste)
Put chopped rhubarb in a kettle with the raisins. Juice the orange and lemon, and add juice to the rhubarb mixture. Quarter the orange and lemon rind; cut away half of the white inner rind and discard. Cut remaining rind into half-inch slivers and add to the mixture, along with the water. Stir well, cover and bring to a boil; immediately reduce heat and let mixture simmer, covered, for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add pectin (and calcium, if required) and sugar or other sweetener, according to package directions.
When conserve is desired thickness, put into hot, sterilized canning jars, filling to 1/4 inch from top. Seal with new lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for 20 minutes. Yields 3 pints.
When you're overwhelmed with ripe tomatoes, why not enjoy their sweetness in a fruit preserve -- For convenience, I use a one-quart liquid measuring cup as my work bowl, adding enough chopped peaches to the tomatoes to make one quart of prepared fruit.
Preparation time: 1 1/3 hours
2 c peeled,chopped tomatoes, with their juice
1 lemon, seeded, thinly sliced and quartered, with its juice
2 or 3 peaches, peeled and chopped
juice of 1 lime
low-methoxyl pectin, per package directions
1 c sugar (or to taste)
Put prepared fruit and lime juice in a large saucepan and stir. Bring to a simmer, covered; cook 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add pectin and sugar or other sweetener, according to package directions. When marmalade is desired thickness, put into hot, sterilized canning jars, filling to 1/4 inch from the top; seal with new lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for 20 minutes. Yields 2 pints.
Hot Pepper Jam
This jam is a star player in an easy hors d'oeuvre that wins raves from family and friends. Put a block of light cream cheese on a plate and spoon a generous amount of hot pepper jam on top. Serve with crackers. Hot stuff! For this recipe I used two boxes of Mrs. Wages Lite Home Jell and got a very firm set.
Preparation time: 1 hour
6 medium green bell peppers, cored and seeded
5 yellow frying peppers (long, sweet peppers), cored and seeded
7 medium-size hot green peppers, cored and seeded
1 large onion, peeled and quartered
1 1/2 c white vinegar
1/4 c lemon juice
low-methoxyl pectin, per package directions
3 c sugar
Puree the peppers and onion in batches in a food processor, or chop finely by hand. Put vegetables in a kettle along with the vinegar, lemon juice and pectin. Let mixture sit for 5 to 10 minutes. Then cover, bring to a boil and add sugar. Return mixture to a full boil, and boil one minute, stirring constantly.
Remove from heat and skim off foam. Ladle into hot, sterile canning jars and fill to 1/4 inch from the rim. Seal with new lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.
Yields 4 1/2 pints.
There's no sugar in this apple butter, but no one would ever guess that the secret ingredient is prunes! This easy oven method works well for a small quantity, and while it's cooking, you can enjoy the heavenly, incense-like aroma -- a hint of the apple butter's spicy flavor.
Preparation time: 2 1/4 hours including baking time
3 lbs cooking apples
1 c pitted prunes
3 c apple cider
1 t cinnamon
1 t allspice
2 t ground cloves
Peel, quarter and core apples and put them, with the prunes and cider, in a kettle and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer partially covered for 20 to 25 minutes, or until soft. Preheat oven to 300° F. Put fruit and cider mixture in a food processor, add spices and puree the mixture. Pour into a shallow 9- by 13-inch baking dish. Spread mixture out evenly and bake in the center of the oven for about 1 hour. During baking, scrape sides and stir occasionally.
To test for doneness, dab a spoonful of apple butter on a saucer and turn the saucer upside down: Apple butter should be thick enough to stick to the saucer. Ladle into hot, sterilized jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Seal with new lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath at least 5 minutes. Yields about 2 pints.
Photo by former managing editor Sabin Gratz/National Gardening Association