Making Low-Sugar Jams

These recipes and tips offer a variety of options for preserving low- or no-sugar jams without commercial pectin.

| August/September 2017

The first time I made jam, our neighborhood grandmother, Agnes, told me I needed to buy a box of commercial pectin so my jam would set. I was pretty appalled by the amount of sugar required and thought the resulting jam was too sweet. It tasted more like sugar and less like the strawberries I had laboriously picked under the hot sun.

So I set about learning about making low-sugar jams without pectin, figuring people must’ve made jam before commercial pectins were sold. Pectin is a naturally occurring substance in the cell walls of ripe fruits and vegetables. When fruit is cooked and broken down, the pectin gives the preserve some structure and thickness so it doesn’t soak unpleasantly into toast or PB&Js.

Back before the advent of the supermarket, home cooks made preserves by simply cooking down their fruits with sugar. And even if they didn’t know anything about pectin, they knew that some fruits, such as ‘Concord’ grapes, jelled easily, but other fruits, such as strawberries, needed to be cooked down a lot. And they knew that all preserves benefited from a splash of lemon juice to help them set.

When commercially extracted pectin was introduced in the United States in the 1920s, cooks embraced this new convenience product. It took the guesswork out of fruit preserves and vastly reduced the time required to make jams and jellies. Of course, those original commercial pectins required that jams be made with white sugar and that the final jam be 60 to 65 percent sugar by weight. On the other hand, yields were greatly increased with commercial pectin because the fruit didn’t have to be cooked down so much, and little time had to be spent stirring the fruit to prevent scorching.

In the 1980s, Pomona’s Universal Pectin arrived on the marketplace. This pectin was formulated to work with the addition of calcium instead of great amounts of sugar. Soon, a few more brands of low- or no-sugar pectin became available.

If you want to make a preserve with a low- or no-sugar pectin today, you can just look for such a product wherever canning supplies are sold (usually hardware stores, supermarkets, or online) and follow the directions on the packaging.

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