In Season — Quince + Making Your Own Pectin

Quince, a tart Asian cousin to apples and pears, is a fruit almost like Michelangelo’s women — knobby, with large, nearly muscular curves and sloping, feminine hills that cast interesting shadows across its gravid belly. A natural web of knitted cellulose gives quince its shape as well as its inedibility. At least while it’s raw, it is punishingly astringent and unpleasantly chewy, yielding nothing but a bitter pucker and confused customers. Quince’s rewards come only with time and heat.

Custom and culture make Californians (and really most Americans) fond of fresh and ready fruit over anything that requires prep. But cooking — the long slow kind — transforms quince’s white flesh into a beautifully pink fruit paste, heavily perfumed with elderflower, pear, vanilla and tropical fruit. For more on this, Emily Green beautifully details the processing of her homegrown “accidental” quince. And for where to find local varieties of quince, turn the page.

The method for preparing most quince fruit is perhaps the simplest demonstration of what our modern culture calls slow food. But time and attention yield incredible results. Hardly surprising then that one of the more flavorful heirloom varieties of quince — Meech’s Prolific — made Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste.

Mike Cirone of See Canyon and Cirone Farms is the only California grower currently offering the Meech’s Prolific, but if you can’t make it to the Santa Monica Wednesday market — or Morro Bay, if you’re up for a farmers market road trip — you can find the more readily available pineapple quince from Mud Creek Ranch and Walker Farms. Mud Creek Ranch attends the following markets: Ojai (Sunday), Hollywood (Sunday), Santa Monica (Wednesday) and Santa Barbara (Saturday); and Walker Farms is at: Pasadena (Saturday) and Glendale (Thursday).

Here in L.A., the dark red squares of dulce de membrillo (Mexican quince candy) are pretty commonplace, their intensely sweet and floral fragrance adding a seasonal exclamation point to autumn festivities and apple pies. My personal favorite — a wedge of salty, creamy bleu with a bit of quince paste.

When ripe, its flesh turns from green to golden yellow and its fuzzy covering (similar to a peach) rubs off, revealing smooth, waxy skin that has an intoxicating perfumey scent. Most quince will come to market green. Let them ripen at room temperature. To keep them for a few weeks after they’ve ripened, wrap them separately in paper and refrigerate. Quinces are difficult to freeze fresh but they keep well once cooked and pureed, with or without sugar.

Quince contains enough natural pectin to to make your own homemade pectin. But with reliable commercial pectins on the market, why would you want to? In a word, organic. Most commercial pectins are made from non-organic fruits, primarily oranges, and there are currently no organic commercial pectins in the U.S. market (looking forward to updating this post someday). So if organic, pesticide-free pectin is important to you (it is to most of the people I know who grow and then preserve their own food), then you’ll want to look into making your own pectin. Quince is a fantastic pectin source, but you can also make pectin from apples, though you need more apples (about 1/3 more) to achieve the same strength of pectin that you get from quince.

Homemade Quince Pectin

1. For every pound of washed and sliced quince (leave the peels on), add 2 cups of water and combine in a large pot. One pound of fruit yields approximately 1/2 a cup of pectin.

2. Cover the pot and bring to a rolling boil then reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes. The fruit will be fork tender. Allow to cool.

3. Strain the quince mixture through a jelly bag or cheesecloth, hanging the bag over a bowl overnight (like you would when draining cheese).

4. Boil the strained juice in a pot over high heat until reduced by half. The pectin is usable immediately and will keep for about a week in the refrigerator. To process the hot pectin for canning, pour it into sterile pint jars (boiled for 10 minutes), leaving only a 1/4 inch of headspace, for five minutes in a boiling water canner. Homemade pectin also freezes well.

To determine the strength of the pectin stir two tablespoons of grain alcohol into one teaspoon of homemade pectin. Juices that are high in natural pectin will form a lot of bulky, gelatinous material. Those with average pectin content will form a few pieces of the jelly-like substance. Juices that are low in pectin content will form only small, flaky pieces of sediment. If the pectin test weak, continue to boil it down further. Do NOT incorporate the test batch back into your main batch of pectin. Toss it.

Generally, 2/3 cups liquid pectin will set four cups of most low-pectin fruit or juice.  So as an example, if you are making strawberry or blueberry jam use the 2/3:4 cups ratio. Quince is a pretty reliable pectin producer, but the strength of the pectin will still vary from batch to batch. The plus? With each batch used, you become a more expert food preserver, intimately understanding the chemistry of fruit preservation and yielding more consistent results each time. However if reliable consistency is more important to you, use commercial pectin. It’s a personal value judgement.

BALANCE NOTE: As a working professional, do I have time to make my own pectin? Not really. I’ve done it once and the results yielded a few batches of satisfying, but ultimately not consistent batches of jam. Some set beautifully. Some did not.  The did nots are still usable, just not County Fair material.

I LONG for a commercial organic pectin. But calls to many suppliers, wholesale and otherwise, have yielded bupkiss. In the end I’ve decided to use both commercial and homemade, depending on the situation.

Think of it like you would think about making your own chicken stock.  Homemade is a beautiful testament to your skills, altered to fit your own style and quality-controlled to yield the results you want.  But in a pinch, a carton of Kitchen Basics (the best store-bought stock available IMHO) will serve.  It’s  one more valuable skill to have in your pocket.

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