Pectin was first isolated from plant material in 1825 by Henri Braconnot, a French chemist who pioneered a number of discoveries in plant and food science. People were, of course, well aware that some fruits gelled much better and faster than others, but Braconnot was the first to explain why. At the peak of the industrial revolution in the 1920s and 1930s, factories were set up specifically to extract the bonding agent. Most of the commercial variety is extracted from citrus peels or from non-marketable apples (e.g. crab apples). It is mostly manufactured in the European Union, with countries like France and Germany supplying the lion’s share of the world market.

Pectin is a semi-essential ingredient in the modern process of making jams, jellies, marmalade, and other preserves. It’s deemed semi-essential because preserves can be made without it, but not in the quantity or consistency that the world market demands. When the polymer is combined with sugar and heated up, it forms a gelatinous semi-liquid that gives jams and jellies their consistencies. In the good old days, people would make their jams through a laborious process, boiling down the fruit for an extended period of time (at least a few hours) to evaporate all the water out of it. Plenty of people still do it the old-fashioned way, but large-scale production depends on pectin to reduce time and cost. Many at-home jelly makers rely on the polymer for this same reason, as it is all natural, safe, easy to use, and inexpensive.

You can purchase pectin in packages in most major supermarkets. It comes in both liquid and powder form, though the powder is by far the most common as it is easier to store and transport. Keep an eye out if you’re buying it at the store, as the regular variety has a very high sugar content. If you don’t like your preserves too sweet, you might want to try the low or no-sugar option. While cooking chopped fruit, simply stir in the powder bit by bit, the same way that you would add flour to fat to make gravy. Once the preserves reach your desired consistency, let them cool, can them, and enjoy!

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