Jam sugar (or gelling sugar) is used in making all types of jam and allows for the jam to set properly instead of being runny.
This ingredient is extremely important in shaping your jam and adding to its consistency. However, is it a necessary ingredient?
In the US this ingredient is more commonly referred to as “Gelling Jam” or a “Gelling Agent” whereas in the UK it is known as “Jam Sugar “. All of these terms refer to the same thing.
So, what is jam sugar, and is it required for jam? Jam sugar is commonly required to make jams and is a mixture of pectin, sugar, and citric acid. These active ingredients play a role in how the jam sets and affects its consistency in a way that makes homemade jam taste, look, and feel like a store-bought jam.
But how does it change the way the jam sets and can it be replaced or omitted completely? Learn more about the art of jam making and the fun science behind jam sugar below!
All In The Pectin
One of the key ingredients of jam sugar is pectin.
Pectin is a fiber that is naturally found in most fruits and vegetables. Although its quantity varies, its job is the same: to hold everything together.
This unique fiber is a structural acidic heteropolysaccharide, which basically means that it is a form of carb that binds cells together.
On a microscopic scale, pectin is found across flora and is responsible for providing firmness and structure by holding together cell structures. On a macroscale, when you hold a firm apple, you are experiencing pectin at work!
See, when a fruit is not ripe it has a precursor ingredient called protopectin that goes through changes as the fruit ripens and turns into pectin. So, the reason why most fruits are firm yet tender and chewable is because of pectin.
You must be thinking, if fruits already contain pectin, then why do we need more along with citric acid? This is because most fruits have varying levels of pectin. Fruits like strawberries have less compared to apples or oranges.
Also, when heating fruits to cook the jam, the cells break down and pectin is released into the mixture. A property of pectin is that it expands and turns into a gel when heat is applied so you can expect to see gel-forming around the pot.
When pectin is dissolved it binds with other ingredients more evenly and this is very important since when you pour and cool the mixture in a jar, it will set in the shape of the jar.
Of course, before that, you will need to use jam sugar to make your mix more consistent.
What Is Jam Sugar?
Jam sugar contains sugar, pectin, and citric acid.
Each of these ingredients has an important role in making jam. We have discussed the role of pectin now let’s look at what citric acid has to do with making jam.
We won’t discuss sugar in detail because, well, sugar sweetens the mixture and adds flavor.
Citric acid, however, is used to add even more stability and structure to the jam, and how it achieves this feat is through pure science.
Every fruit has a different pH, some are acidic while others are less acidic. It turns out that when you increase the acidity of a mixture with pectin, it tends to bind even more efficiently.
The great thing about this is that you don’t need to make the jam acidic in flavor, you will just slightly increase its acidity to increase the number of positively charged ions in the mix.
Pectin is naturally negatively charged so it tends to resist binding with other pectin molecules.
However, adding an acid to the mix knocks the negative charge and turns the pectin neutral. This way, it binds more effectively and evenly in the mix.
Citric acid is used sparingly to only slightly tip the acidity of the mix without affecting the flavor.
For example, citric acid is naturally present in some types of fruits so when making jam you will have to check the recipe to see how much jam sugar is required to make your batch.
Some people who don’t have access to jam sugar may also try to make jam without it. But would it be better than jam made with jam sugar?
The Difference In Using And Not Using Jam Sugar
Jam sugar works as a stabilizer and is a key ingredient in adding a firm consistency to the mix.
However, some people might not want to use it for various reasons. The simplest being that you don’t have it on hand and you are short on time.
In that case, you will have to rely on the naturally found pectin in your fruit jam.
For some types of fruits, you may have better results, as we discussed earlier, the pectin profile in each fruit and vegetable varies so for example if you were to make strawberry jam, you would end up with a runnier consistency.
The main thing here is that making jam without jam sugar is completely doable.
It will likely affect the consistency, if you can live with that then we recommend just adding sugar to your mix as per the recipe and cooking it properly as per the instructions.
Sure, your jam may end up being a bit runny, but you will easily be able to make a delicious batch without the need for jam sugar.
Think of this in terms of using bread improvers to make bread, you may be able to make a great loaf, but it may not have the right texture or the consistency that you are used to, compared to store-bought bread.
You may also add the active ingredients in jam sugar individually, for example, if you don’t have citric acid on hand but have powdered or liquid pectin, then you can use the pectin without adding citric acid too.
You will have to adjust the individual quantities accordingly though, or you might end up with a very firm mixture that isn’t easily spreadable. Please refer to your recipe of choice for more information on the proportions of the ingredients.
How To Use Jam Sugar
We advise that you get a cooking thermometer for the best results.
Before making jam, you must first take into account if the fruit in question is high or low in pectin. Fruits low in pectin tend to be:
Fruits with higher pectin include:
If you are making 1kg of strawberry jam, for example, you will need about 750g of jam sugar. Of course, this value can be different depending on the recipe but ideally, you will need about 500g or more jam sugar for 1kg of fruits.
Pectin breaks down and dissolves when the fruit mixture reaches about 105°C. The idea here is to boil the fruit until all the pectin from within is released into the mixture.
This is when you will also add the jam sugar and cook thoroughly until the mix is homogenous. If you boil the mix for too long you will have a very thick and not-easily spreadable jam.
If you have a watery mix, then the jam won’t set properly. The mix has to be just right and that is usually achieved by boiling for about 5-10 minutes until the temperature reaches 105°C.
Another way to test the liquid, if you don’t have a thermometer, is to use the spoon test.
Take a small sample of the mix from the pot in a spoon and set it out in a cool pan. Let it sit for a few minutes and cool down. Use your finger to run through the sample, if you notice wrinkles then you are good to go.
If you notice the sample to be runny and easy to move around with the pan then you may need to boil for 2-4 more minutes.
Repeat this test until the desired results are achieved, don’t worry about boiling it too much, you can always add more water and cook the mix again.
Once you have prepared the mix let it sit and cool for a while, make sure it is still a bit runny so that you can transfer it to a jar, and then let the jam cool down completely.
You can also give the jar a light tap with your hand or place a towel on your counter and tap the jar lightly so that the jam sets evenly.
Substitutes For Jam Sugar
Jam sugar can be substituted if you are trying to avoid sugar in your diet but you may not get the same results if you are skipping out on the pectin and citric acid completely.
Some of the things that you can use to substitute jam sugar are:
Honey is a great substitute for jam sugar and is a healthier option too. Most people find honey to be a great addition to their jam recipe.
However, honey may make the mixture more watery while cooking. An easy way to counter this is to cook the jam for 5-8 more minutes or until the mix becomes consistent.
You may use a digital or analog thermometer or do the spoon test as we mentioned above.
Honey pairs well with a lot of fruit so we highly recommend that you try this substitute first. If you are serious about jam-making then you should attempt to make different batches with various sweeteners.
For example, cook a full batch of fruit without the sweeteners and divide it into different pots and add your favorite sweetener to each pot to gain an understanding of how each will taste and set.
Remember, honey will have a distinctly different taste than sugar which may or may not be appealing.
This is another great and healthy addition when making jam. Cane sugar is easy to work with and will dissolve just like other sweeteners.
However, cane sugar may give your fruit jam an entirely different flavor profile. We recommend that you test this out before committing to a large batch.
Nectars And Maple Syrup
For maple syrup try adding 2/3 of a cup for every 1 cup of sugar required in the recipe. For agave nectar, try 3/4 of a cup for every 1 cup for best results.
Splenda is a great option if you want to go with an artificial sweetener for your jam. However, keep in mind that you can’t use artificial sweeteners in your jam recipe if the recipe calls for regular sugar as a preservative.
You can only substitute jam sugar with Splenda when the primary intention of its use is to sweeten the mix – not to preserve it.
Using Low-Sugar or No-sugar Pectin
While sugar is very important in the setting and cooking process when making jam, there are many no-sugar-pectin options available in the market too.
These allow for the mix to set evenly but you will have a noticeably less sweet mix.
Of course, you can counter this by either adding in just a bit of sugar or if you want to go completely no-sugar then we recommend that you make a jam of the sweetest fruit that you can find.
Now that we’ve gone over what jam sugar is and some practical substitutes for the ingredient, let’s take a look at a few related questions on the topic we thought you might’ve had!
What is pectin sugar?
Pectin sugar is another name for jam sugar and you will find many such terms in the market. However, all of them refer to the same thing: jam sugar.
Pectin sugar is used in jam making to sweeten, stabilize and add firmness to the jam.
Can you make jam without jam sugar?
Yes, making jam without jam sugar is possible, but you will need to use a few techniques to add texture and firmness to your jam mix.
For example, evaporating excess water can help firm up the jam mixture. You can also use substitutes and no-sugar pectin to achieve the same results too.
Is pectin harmful?
Pectin is a naturally occurring, non-harmful compound and can be found in many fruits and vegetables. It is what gives fruit and veggies their firmness and structure.
It’s an extremely important fiber that is key in jam making along with citric acid, which combined with sugar, gives jam its distinctive firmness and spread-ability.
Can you use artificial sweeteners for jam-making?
Yes, you can use artificial sweeteners to make jam but you may not be able to get the same flavor or the same firm texture as you would if you were to use jam sugar.
However, many diet-conscious people may use Splenda to make jam or use a half-and-half mixture of sugar and artificial sweeteners to sweeten any jam.
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