Unless you like your fruit pies filled with runny gloop, you may wish to add a thickener to the filling. Cornstarch, arrowroot and tapioca flour are some regular options, but pectin can also play a role in firming up the juiciness of your chosen fruit. Pectin is a natural substance found in fruits. Alternatively, add commercial pectin to your fruit pie filling.
Pectin as a Thickener
If you've ever made jellies or jams, you know all about pectin. To achieve the characteristic "set" of a jam or jelly, recipes usually include liquid or dry pectin. When combined with the right amount of sugar, acid and heat, pectin binds with water to form a gel. As the jam or jelly cools, the gel continues to thicken.
Fruit naturally contains a certain amount of pectin. Sour blackberries and apples, crabapples, cranberries and loganberries contain the most pectin, while blueberries, peaches, strawberries, apricots and pears are low in pectin. Ripe apples, blackberries and sour cherries fall somewhere in between.
Is pectin a great thickener for fruit pie filling? The jury's out. Pectin forms a gel at about 220 degrees Fahrenheit, and most fruit pies don't reach that temperature while they bake. What's more, pectin is fussy in its sugar and acid requirements. Nevertheless, some fruit pie recipes include pectin as a thickening ingredient.
If your recipe requires pectin, remember that commercial pectin has a limited shelf life. As the pectin product ages, it loses its ability to form a gel, so check the "use-by" date when you purchase it. Liquid and powdered pectin are available, and you can substitute one for the other. One pouch of liquid pectin is equivalent to 1 3/4 ounces or a little less than 1/2 cup of powdered pectin.
No-sugar or low-sugar pectin does not require you to add sugar in a pie filling before it will thicken. You can substitute Stevia or Splenda for sugar or rely on the fruit's natural sugars to sweeten your pie. Or, you can simply add sugar and not worry if you're adding enough to allow the pectin to work its magic.
How to Use Fruit Pectin in Pies
Thickening fruit pie filling is more of an art than a science, but commercial pectin can come to your rescue. If you have a recipe that includes pectin, follow the instructions. If not, heat the juice of the fruit and add a commercial pectin product before you bake your pie.
To extract the juice from the fruit, mix it with the sugar in your recipe and wait an hour. The juice will leach out of the fruit into a puddle in the bottom of the bowl. Baking a no-sugar pie? No problem. Freeze and then thaw your fruit for the same result.
Now, strain the fruit and collect the juice in a separate bowl. You may find you have more juice than your recipe requires, but don't worry: You don't have to throw away that delicious juice. Pour it into a saucepan and boil down the juice until you have the right amount. This process also concentrates the flavor.
A rule of thumb for using pectin to thicken jams or jellies made from low-pectin fruit is to add 2 tablespoons of liquid pectin or 4 tablespoons of powdered pectin per 2 cups of juice. If you would like your filling to be less firm than a jelly, or you're using a high-pectin fruit, reduce the amount of pectin you add.
Lattice and open-top pies also require a little less pectin or other thickeners than closed-top pies. The reason for this is that filling loses water through the top of the pie while it's baking. Also reduce the amount of thickener if the pie won't be eaten that day. The filling will continue to thicken for 24 hours after baking.
Whisk the juice into the pectin along with any salt or spices your recipe calls for in a saucepan, and heat the mixture on medium-high heat your stove. When the mixture begins to boil, reduce the heat to medium. Stir the saucepan's contents constantly for 5 minutes, and then remove it from the heat.
Mix the heated juice with the fruit gently to avoid spoiling the appearance of the fruit. Your filling is ready to go into your pie shell. Spoon the mixture into the shell and cover the top with pastry according to your recipe.
Add Natural Pectin Thickener
An alternative to commercial pectin as a thickener is to use a high-pectin fruit in your pie. You might not improve an apple pie filling with pectin due to the low juice and high natural pectin content. However, if you're craving a pie made from low-pectin fruit like blueberries or peaches, you can harness nature to thicken the filling by adding a high-pectin fruit.
Grated Granny Smith apples add pep to a sweet fruit pie, and their pectin content helps reduce the runniness of the filling. To stick the amount of fruit stated in your recipe, you should peel and grate a Granny Smith and replace an equal weight of low-pectin fruit with the grated apple. Stir in the apple before you pop your filling into the pie shell.
Kiwi is another fruit that adds pectin thickener power to fruit pie fillings, and it goes particularly well with strawberries. Peel and finely chop one or two firm kiwi fruits, weigh the chopped fruit and remove an equal weight of strawberries. Stir the kiwi fruit thoroughly into your strawberry filling.
Try an Alternative Thickener
Try experimenting with different pie filling thickeners to find the one that works best for you and tastes the best to your family. Some alternatives to pectin include all-purpose flour, quick-cooking tapioca, cornstarch and arrowroot. Each thickener has its pros and cons.
All-purpose flour thickens at a low temperature, but it makes the filling cloudy, and it can taste gummy. Quick-cooking tapioca also requires only low temperatures to thicken a filling, though it creates a stippled effect after baking. Cornstarch and arrowroot are effective thickeners, but both require high temperatures to begin working.
If you want to try quick-cooking tapioca, mix it into your filling at least 15 minutes before baking to allow the tapioca time to soften. Don't use cornstarch for pies you intend to freeze, or the filling will turn spongy when it thaws. Also, choose a different thickener instead of arrowroot if you're baking a cream-based pie unless you love a slimy texture.
These starchy thickeners work by absorbing water molecules and expanding, but the resulting structure can break down. When the temperature exceeds 150 degrees F, the thickener forms a web of starch and water molecules. However, prolonged temperatures above 205 degrees F or vigorous stirring can cause the strands in the web to shrink or break down.
Instant ClearJel is another starch-based thickener, but the product has been pre-gelatinized. This gel sets without heat, and the pies can be frozen without any detrimental effects. You can substitute Instant ClearJel or a similar product for another thickener in equal parts.
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