I recently got a question from a reader asking about the difference between pectin and Clear Jel. She was primarily curious because when she researched pricing, she found that Clear Jel was significantly less expensive than the pectin options she was finding. Could they be used interchangeably, she asked?
Unfortunately, the answer is no.
While they both have thickening properties, they act upon the fruit in jams and jellies differently. Pectin is a water-soluble fiber that is divided into very fine particles. When heated with a sugar solution, it takes up position, bonds with the sugar molecules and expands in a way that makes it nearly impossible to separate out from the rest of the product, thus creating a stable, gelled preserve.
Clear Jel is a modified cornstarch that is recommended for canning because it doesn’t lose its thickening powers after extended heating (conventional cornstarch starts to break down at high heat and also doesn’t thicken high acid liquids well). Clear Jel thickens by creating bonds between the water molecules and the starch molecules. As you heat those bonded molecules up, they continue to expand until they form a network of sticky bonds that keep the liquid thick. It’s a very different process that how fruit pectins thicken, and were you to compare a well-set cherry jam and a cherry pie filling, you’d easily be able to see the difference in consistency.
Note: Please know that I’m not a scientist and that I’ve explained this to the best of my ability. If there are any food scientists out there who feel like they could do a better job of makes these differences even clearer, please get in touch. I’d love to feature your post.