8 Natural and Healthy Canning Substitutions

Use these natural canning ingredients as alternatives for the pectin, sugar and alum found in many canning recipes.

by Dani Yokhna
A natural, homemade apple liquid pectin made with apples can be used as a substitute for commercial powdered pectins in jam and jelly recipes. Photo courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock (HobbyFarms.com)
Courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock

If you’re canning your own jams, jellies and pickles, you may be wondering if you can tweak the recipe a bit to include natural substitutions for certain ingredients. The short answer is “probably,” but there’s a little more to it than simply exchanging one item for another. Before attempting any of the substitutions below in your favorite canning recipe, discuss the changes with an expert canner from your county cooperative extension office to ensure the safety of the recipe.

4 Alternatives to Powdered Pectin
Pectin, a complex carbohydrate and soluble fiber found in the cell walls of plants, is used to help jams and jellies gel. Some fruits—like apples, quinces, plums, gooseberries, guava and citrus fruit—are high in pectin, while other fruits—like cherries, strawberries and rhubarb—are low in pectin.  

Change your cooking method.
You can make jams and jellies without added pectin by cooking them longer. Canning and preserving expert Eugenia Bone, author of Preserved: Recipes and Techniques for Putting Up Small Batches of Seasonal Foods (Clarkson Potter, 2009), points out that baking your ingredients offers a pectin-free option, as well.

“Layer chopped or mashed fruit in a baking pan with a rim, top with a layer of sugar, and bake at 200 degrees F,” Bone says. “Using this technique, different fruits will take different amounts of time, as much as 2 hours for cherries, and much less for delicate fruits, like blueberries. You can use far less sugar. Pour off the syrup (and keep it—it’s a marvelous base for fruit sodas) and pack the fruit into jars. It’s not a traditional jamming method and produces more of a confiture, but the fruit flavor is very fresh and the end product thick enough to spread on toast.” 

When experimenting with bake times, look for a consistency in the fruit that suits your personal preference. If it’s a fairly fragile fruit that breaks down quickly, monitor it closely. It will thicken and reach a jam-like consistency sooner than a stouter fruit.

Bone adds that some fruits baked at low temperatures will turn to syrup and might not gel, so you’ll need to experiment to see what works best. Fruit prepared this way can be canned using a water-bath process, just like other jam recipes.

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Once in jars, the baked fruit will keep for the same amount of time as conventionally prepared jams and jellies.

Add high-pectin fruits to the mix.
Another powdered-pectin alternative is to add high-pectin fruits to your jam or jelly as you’re cooking it for a pectin boost, then remove the fruits before processing. Doing so can be a little tricky, as the amount of pectin in fruit varies. Making small batches to see what works is a great way to experiment without using up your entire stock of fruit.  

“I like to toss in whole or halved crabapples,” Bone says. “It’s trial and error, but I always do a small batch. I’d say about four crabapples per pint of jam. I add them to the jam as it cooks. That will usually throw off enough pectin, then I’ll take them out when the jam is done cooking.”
You can also use sliced apples in the same manner. Under-ripe apples and crabapples tend to work better for pectin extraction than fully ripe fruits.

Grapes and blackberries are also fruits with high pectin content, though you might not be able to extract them to use in other recipes as you can with apples and crabapples. You might find, however, that you can successfully get those fruits to gel more easily than lower-pectin fruits, like strawberries.

Make your own liquid pectin.
Some jam and jelly makers prefer to use homemade liquid apple pectin. To extract the pectin, follow a process similar to juice extraction: Cut apples into quarters or slices, cover with water and cook until the fruit is a saucy consistency. Allow the cooked apples to drain through cheesecloth or a jelly bag, then collect the pectin-laced liquid.
The white pithy part of a citrus rind also has high levels of pectin. Remove the zest (and save for later use in a favorite recipe), chop the peel, add a little lemon juice and allow it to rest for about 30 minutes. Then add water to cover, bring to a boil, and cook for about 15 to 20 minutes, straining the liquid for later use in a canning recipe.

Both apple and citrus-rind pectin will keep in the refrigerator for about a week. You can freeze it or, for a longer shelf life, process using a water-bath canner.

Buy a natural pectin product. 
Another natural alternative to conventional commercial pectin products is Pomona’s Universal Pectin.

“Pomona’s allows flexibility with your sweetener and offers you a way to experiment with different sweeteners and fruits,” Bone says. “It uses a calcium powder to activate the pectin, and … it’s a fantastic way to employ honey or agave in recipes and to avoid the problems of runny or overcooked jams and jellies.”

3 Substitutes for Sugar
Cooks often want to know if they can use sugar substitutes when making jams and jellies or canning and preserving fruits. Honey, agave nectar and stevia can all be used in canning recipes, but most experts advise against replacing all of the sugar in a recipe with a substitute.

“You can’t just replace honey for sugar, cup for cup,” Bone says. “It is a preservative, but it doesn’t dehydrate the fruit cells, which retards the growth of spoilers, in the same way as sugar.”

Honey can be substituted for up to half of the sugar in a recipes. If a recipe calls for 5 cups of sugar, add 2½ cups sugar and 2½ cups of honey. (Some people suggest using slightly less honeys so 1 cup sugar equals about 7/8 cup honey). You still need sugar in the mix for preserving purposes.
Using honey in jams and jellies might affect how long the product is processed and how well it gels. Because honey doesn’t dehydrate fruit as much as sugar, the final product might be runny; plus, the honey can overpower the fruit’s flavor if you’re not careful. To replace sugar with honey, look for recipes that have been specifically formulated—and approved—for honey, or use Pomona’s Pectin, Bone advises.
Agave nectar can be used in the same manner as honey. Powdered stevia is also an option, but you should use no-sugar pectin or Pomona Pectin when using stevia.
Skip the Alum
If you’ve made pickles, you might have added alum (potassium aluminum sulfate) to promote crispness. According to the USDA, adding alum is unnecessary if you’re using fresh, high-quality produce. (Cucumbers should be used fresh from the vine for crisp pickles). 
As an alternative, Bone adds one grape leaf to each jar when she cans pickles. Grape leaves contain an enzyme that promotes crispness without adding alum to the process.

About the Author: Debbie Moors is a Colorado-based writer who enjoys stringing together words about horses, hens, gardening, cooking, knitting and spinning. She blogs about her hens, horses, children and the cottage arts at https://coopandcottage.blogspot.com.

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