I just received this email from a past student (I taught preserving at Bastyr University last fall) and thought it was a great learning opportunity for anyone interested in home preserving, particulary jams and jellies in this case. Rachel writes:
Remember how I said you changed my life by introducing me to the fact that I don't need to buy pectin? Weeell, I have this recipe for Dandelion Jelly that asks for no sugar needed pectin (yet later calls for sugar in the recipe) here. My question is, can I make my own pectin in lieu of the no sugar needed? Does it really serve any sort of purpose in this recipe?
This Dandelion Jelly recipe is made from steeping dandys in water, flavoring with lemon juice & rind, pectin and sugar. Here is what everyone needs to remember: ALL jams and jellies need pectin in order to set. Some fruits are heavy with natural pectin (apples, lemons) and do not need any help from added pectin to set. Other fruits that are low in pectin (blueberries, cherries) will need some pectin added. You can add pectin by using a pectin product (whether or not the label says it requires sugar) or by using natural pectin - the rind of a lemon, core of an apple or homemade green apple jelly.
To answer Rachel's specific question, yes, you need sugar. You need some sort of sweetener for two reasons.
1 - If you didn't have sugar in the recipe, you would have dandelion infused lemon water. Not yummy.
2 - Sugar and pectin work together. (We talked about this in class, remember?!) Sugar helps to attract water away from pectin, allowing the pectin molecules to create network of 'links' that hold the jam/jelly together. This pectin linkage is what give jellies their body.
So, if you removed the sugar, the pectin would have a hard time bonding. AND if you removed the sugar, the jam wouldn't taste good. If it were me, I'd use homemade apple jelly pectin, not a powdered product from the store. My final thoughts on the matter are left from my friend and uber-smart forager, Langdon Cook. Lang made Dandy Jelly last year and his post sums up all the potential mishaps and shows what the actual product will look like on his blog, Fat of The Land. I also like the sound of this recipe better - the proportions are more balanced.