Gelatin versus pectin: what is the difference between these two thickening agents?
As always, let us start at the beginning, with their definitions. Be forewarned that they will not put you in the mood for eating.
- Gelatin: a nearly transparent, faintly yellow, odorless, and almost tasteless glutinous substance obtained by boiling in water the ligaments, bones, skin, etc., of animals, and forming the basis of jellies, glues, and the like; an edible jelly made of this substance
- Pectin: a white, amorphous, colloidal carbohydrate of a high molecular weight occurring in ripe fruits, especially in apples, currants, etc., and used in fruit jellies, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics for its thickening and emulsifying properties and its ability to solidify to a gel
We can conclude from the definitions alone that the primary difference between gelatin and pectin is that one is derived from animals, and the other is fruit or plant-based, respectively. Both are elements that thicken, gel, or otherwise provide stability for foods and additional products. And, both are available in powdered or liquid form.
Although the definition mentions pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, when it comes to food, pectin is mostly used just with jams and jellies; gelatin is found in many different kinds of foods, such as yogurt, marshmallows, certain desserts, and more.
According to DifferenceBetween.net, the best gelatin comes from the first processing of a pigskin. “This gelatin has a great gelling capacity and is almost clear. It also has a mild flavor.”
Indeed, gelatin typically does not have any taste to it at all. Pectin is often neutrally flavored as well. Although, it can have an affect on the taste – using pectin in the powdered form can reduce the overall cooking time, allowing natural fruit flavors to shine through.
While gelatin is a protein, pectin is a carbohydrate. Pectin can be found in the rinds and pulps of fresh fruits such as apples and oranges – it is what holds the fibers of the fruits together. In fact, pectin is actually found in all fruits, but the amount can vary.
As mentioned before, pectin is almost always used with the production of jams and jellies.
Here is my question: Can you substitute gelatin for pectin in said jams and jellies? Canning is a complex process that requires following directions and ingredients to a tee in order to ensure a safe food product. Substituting ingredients with canning must be done carefully, if at all.
According to Food In Jars, no, you cannot use gelatin in jelly-making (although they do not specify jam).
Colorado State University Extension (I imagine the organization is similar to Cornell’s Cooperative Extensions here in New York State) implies that you can in fact use gelatin in place of pectin: “Jams and jellies can be made somewhat satisfactorily without added sugar but tend to resemble more of a gelatin-fruited dessert than a true jam or jelly. Such products generally are sweetened with unflavored gelatin, gums, or modified pectin.”
My Substitutions Bible, strangely, mentions using pectin and gelatin together: use 4 tsp powdered pectin and 1 tbsp unflavored gelatin powder or granules in place of liquid pectin.
I also consulted my Ball Blue Book of Canning, which made absolutely no mention of gelatin at all as far as I could find.
However, they do give us a few fun facts on pectin:
- Under-ripe fruits contain more pectin than fully-ripe fruits.
- Many recipes require the peel and core to be used when preparing fruit for a juice, because the pectin is amassed in these areas.
- There are three types of pectin that are not interchangeable: classic, liquid, and low or no-sugar needed.
Based on the aforementioned information on substituting gelatin for pectin it would appear that it is a safe swap to make, in terms of canning. However, one would have to bear in mind that such a change-out could affect the end product in terms of flavor and gelling consistency.
If you would like to check out the difference between jams, jellies, and preserves, we have a Difference Between for that.