Pectin for jams and jellies is one of the things I always bring back from Germany. I am so hooked on it that last year when I had a bumper crop of strawberries from my garden, my mother had to mail me an emergency supply.
Sure, there are pectin products in the United States, but just looking at the long list of instructions for the different fruits always put me off, plus the high amount of sugar used in them. German products, available from the ubiquitous Dr. Oetker and from other brands, mainly sugar companies, are wonderfully simple.
German pectin comes in three basic versions, depending how much sugar you want to use: the same weight of sugar and fruit (1:1), half as much sugar as fruit (2:1), or three times as much fruit as sugar (3:1). The formula is slightly different for jelly but equally straightforward, and it can be used indiscriminately for any type of fruit. The pectin is also available already premixed with sugar, certainly not an option if you take it overseas like me.
Linda Ziedrich, in her excellent book The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and other Sweet Preserves, writes that she usually does not use any pectin at all. Because I have never encountered anyone in Germany who would not use good old pectin to make jams and jellies, this made me wonder whether jam with American pectin turns out differently from jam made with a German product.
After poring over the ingredient lists of the different products with a friend, a retired dietitian and my go-to in all food chemistry questions, we decided to do a test during strawberry season. We shared a flat of strawberries from the local farmers’ market. My friend made a batch with Sure Jell (the less-sugar or no-sugar version in the pink package), and I used the German pectin with a sugar to fruit ratio of 2:1, which is the closest to Sure Jell in terms of sugar amount.
In a blind tasting among family members, most of us liked both jams and could not taste a big difference, except that one taster thought the strawberry jam with Sure Jell was slightly smoother and sweeter, and three of us found the one with the German pectin tasted more complex and fruitier (it does contain about 14% less sugar in weight).
Linda and I had started comparing notes about the use of pectins in jams and I was curious to see what she thought. I parted with a package of my precious Gelfix that I had brought back from a recent trip to Germany and sent it to Linda, who conducted her own experiment and taste tasting. You can read about her findings on her blog.
Pectin is not the only difference between jam making in Germany and the United States. The jars are different, too. In the old days, the standard were jars with glass lids and rubber gasket. The market leader was Weck, and the history of the jars is intriguing. They were invented by chemist Rudolf Rempel and patented in 1892 but commercialized by Johann Weck, who was a teetotaler and a vegetarian. Most fruit was preserved in alcohol back then, therefore processing foods in a boiling water bath to create a vacuum seemed an ingenious method. It was. Weck jars became so popular that the verb “einwecken” is still a standard idiom for canning, listed in every German dictionary.
Nowadays most people in Germany use jars with screw-top lids. A common trick to “seal” them is to turn the jars upside down immediately after filling them with the piping hot jam or jelly. Funny, in view of the controversy about Bisphenol A (BPA) in the lining of canning lids, this is exactly what I would not do, unless the lids are BPA-free.
Weck canning jars are pretty and BPA-free. Unfortunately the jars are only available by mail order, and thus not economical if you do a lot of canning. For now, and after this experiment, I am quite content making jams in my German-American way: with canning jars made in the USA, and with pectin from Germany.