Hot Fruity Vinegar

Canning, Baking, and all things Kitcheny

Runny Jelly or Why Didn’t This Work?

What happens when you have runny jelly?  Well a lot of people just say forget it and throw it away and waste all that time and money.  But you don’t have too.

There are a lot of things to think about when you’re making jelly.  The fruit juice you use.  The amount of sugar you use.  The type of pectin you use.  How humid your climate is.  How well you process the jars.  How long you boiled it before you put it in the jars.

Before we can discuss how to save runny jelly or prevent runny jelly we need to know why it happens.

How does pectin work?

runny jelly pectin moleculeAccording to wikipedia, “In plant biology, pectin consists of a complex set of polysaccharides (see below) that are present in most primary cell walls and are particularly abundant in the non-woody parts of terrestrial plants. Pectin is a major component of the middle lamella, where it helps to bind cells together, but is also found in primary cell walls.”

The important part of that sentence is “helps to bind cells together”. So if it helps to bind cells together what do you think it does to your runny jelly or jam?  Without going into all the chemistry of how it all works.  Just think of it as a cellular structure that binds to itself making a gel matrix.

What causes runny jelly then?

Like I said before there are a lot of things that can cause runny jelly.  Let’s go over them

  1. Not Enough Pectin:  This is probably the easiest one to remedy.  Make sure you follow the directions on the package, or in the recipe, to use the correct amount of pectin in your jelly or jam.
  2. Not Enough Sugar:  This is another easy one to correct.  If you’re not using a low sugar or no sugar pectin you MUST use sugar.  It binds with the water and leaves less for the pectin to use making the jam or jelly set.
  3. Bad Fruit:  Believe it or not the kind of fruit or fruit juice you use has a lot to do with whether or not you get runny jelly.  Fruity has pectin in it naturally. If you use over ripe fruit or a fruit that is low in pectin you’re going to get runny jelly.
  4. Not Allowing it to Boil long enough: If you live at sea level this is pretty easy to not mess up.  If you live above sea level however, as I do at about 5K feet, you can mess this one up.  At higher altitudes stuff boils at lower temperatures.  At sea level you bring it to a full rolling boil for 1 min and you’re good.  At higher altitudes you have to boil it for longer to get the pectin correctly activated.
  5. How humid your climate is:  If you live in say the deep south of America you have high humidity.  You know this.  Part of the boiling that you do does evaporate some of the liquid in the juice making less runny jelly and less water for the pectin to interact with.  If you have a very humid climate you’re not going to get as much evaporation when you boil.  The only way to fix that is to move or get dehumidifiers.
  6. Poor Processing: The additional time in the processing bath evaporates more excess liquid and heats the jars to boiling again for a certain period of time.  By doing this you are essentially cooking the jelly for more time to get the pectin nice and activated.  Processing is very important.

Next week we’ll talk about what you do to fix runny jelly.  If you have any questions please feel free to leave them in the comments below.

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