How to Use Gelatin or Jello Instead of Pectin to Make Jam and Jelly


jello gelatin boxes

I normally do not use gelatin or jello as a thickener in making jam or other homemade fruit products. However, I do know many people that do all the time. This article will tell you how to do it.

To make jam or jelly using gelatin or jello, you must switch up the timing on when the thickener is added. While you add pectin before the fruit and sugar have been cooked, gelatin or jello must be added afterward.

Now let’s discuss exactly how to make jelly or jam using either gelatin or jello.

How To Use Gelatin Powder and Jello Used as Thickeners

Gelatin

Gelatin is the only protein that has the capability of thickening liquids. After you roast meat, check the juices at the bottom of the pan. The slightly thick and sticky drippings in the pan that make such delicious sauces are a result of the collagen, the ingredient that is used to make gelatin.

When those drippings cool, they form a thick gel. It’s the same with the powdered gelatin you buy in a package. Once the gelatin is dissolved in water and is heated, a slightly thickened liquid is the result.  When that liquid is allowed to cool, it is transformed by the collagen into a soft gel. Gelatin can be used to thicken gravies, sauces, jam, and many other types of food, and is used in making ice cream, marshmallows, cake frostings, and gummy candies.

Recipe for Refrigerator Jam Using Gelatin as a Thickener:

  • 5 cups prepared Strawberries (washed, trimmed, and chopped)
  • 1-1/2 cups Sugar or a substitute like 6 tablespoons Honey
  • 1 tablespoon Lemon Juice
  • 1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
  • 3 teaspoons Unflavored Gelatin
  1. Place strawberries, sugar and lemon juice in a Dutch oven or other pot (Click the link to see which I recommend), and bring to a boil, stirring constantly.
  2. Reduce heat, and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring frequently and skimming off foam.
  3. Add vanilla and use a potato masher to mash the fruit to desired consistency.
  4. Remove from heat and stir in powdered gelatin, whisking until completely dissolved.
  5. Pour into prepared jars, wipe jar rims and affix lids, and set on a towel to cool. Make sure you use high-quality jars, like the type I recommend.
  6. Once the jam has cooled completely, place in the refrigerator, ready to use.
  7. This jam will keep in the refrigerator for up to 4 months.

Important Note: Keep in mind that boiling gelatin for too long will weaken its gelling ability, so be sure to add the gelatin or jello after the other ingredients have been boiled. If it doesn’t set properly, you cannot reboil it. Even though gelatin and jello work great in refrigerator jam, avoid using either in freezer jam as freezing causes the liquid to separate from the gel when it is thawed.

You may also be interested in our essential list of jam and jelly making tools.

Jello

When using jello in making jam, you not only have the benefit of its thickening capability, you also add the flavor of the jello that you use to enhance your jam.

To make jam using jello, combine fruit, sugar, and water and boil the designated time specified in the recipe, then remove from heat and stir in the jello. Boiling gelatin for too long will weaken its gelling ability. If it doesn’t set properly, you cannot reboil it. Also, avoid using jello in freezer jam as freezing causes the liquid to separate from the gel when it is thawed.

Recipe for Refrigerator Jam Using Jello as a Thickener:

  • 5 cups prepared Strawberries (washed, trimmed, and chopped)
  • 3 cups Sugar
  • 1 teaspoon Lemon Juice
  • 1 3-ounce package Strawberry Jello (or 5 tablespoons of Chia Seeds)
  1. Place strawberries, sugar and lemon juice in a Dutch oven or other pot (not aluminum), and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly.
  2. Reduce heat, and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring frequently and skimming off foam. Use a potato masher to mash the fruit while it is cooking.
  3. Remove from heat and stir in powdered jello, continuing to stir until completely dissolved.
  4. Pour into prepared jars, wipe jar rims and affix lids, and set on a towel to cool.
  5. Once the jam has cooled completely, place in the refrigerator, ready to use.
  6. This jam will keep in the refrigerator for up to 4 months.

What Exactly Is Gelatin Powder?

Gelatin powder is a processed structural protein that comes from the bones and hides of cows and pigs. The parts are boiled to extract collagen, which is filtered, dried, and processed to make the powder. After all the processing, the gelatin is no longer labeled as an animal or meat product, but collagen is an animal by-product, unlike the other thickeners which are plant-based.

Gelatin is used for the treatment of certain medical conditions, including arthritis and osteoporosis, and to strengthen bones and nails, and to improve hair quality. Plain gelatin powder is clear and tasteless and is readily available for the many different recipes that call for gelatin. The collagen in gelatin has the elasticity that allows it to be used as a thickener. It transforms fruit juice into gummy bears and jello into a jiggly dessert that we all know and love.

Interesting Fact: Other versions of gelatin powder that are available include kosher gelatin which is extracted from fish bones and beef skin instead of the hides of cows and pigs, and a vegetarian version of gelatin called agar is extracted from seaweed.

What Exactly Is Jello Made Of?

The main ingredient in jello is gelatin powder. When other ingredients including sweetener, preservative, artificial color, and artificial flavor are added to the gelatin, along with adipic acid to make it tart, gelatin becomes the jello that is more familiar to us. Both products, plain gelatin powder and jello, can be used in making jam and preserves and many other products that require thickeners.

How Is Jello Used to Add Flavor?

Jello comes in 22 different fruit flavors, and when added to any recipe, those flavors become a part of that recipe. Natural and artificial flavorings are used to create the jello flavors, and when added to jam, there is an almost unlimited number of flavor combinations you can make. Some of those combinations include strawberry fig, strawberry rhubarb, strawberry apricot, and cranberry orange.

Can Jam and Jelly Be Made Without Using A Thickener?

Jelly, jam, and preserves can be made without a thickener by using fruit that is high in naturally occurring pectin, such as apples and grapes, and by cooking longer. You will need to use a jelly or candy thermometer and cook to a certain temperature, depending on the altitude where the jelly is being made. Or, you can make jam and jelly by using an alternative thickener such as chia seeds, cornstarch, gelatin powder, jello, pectin, or tapioca as a thickener.

List of Thickeners for Jam and Jelly

Other thickeners that can be used instead of pectin include chia seeds, cornstarch, gelatin powder, jello, and tapioca. Here is a bit more info on each type:

Chia Seeds

Chia seeds come from a desert plant grown in Mexico and have been around since the Mayan and Aztec cultures. They are an unprocessed, whole-grain food, and one ounce (about 2 tablespoons) contains 139 calories, with 4 grams of protein, 9 grams of fat, 12 grams of carbohydrates, and 11 grams of fiber, plus vitamins and minerals. Chia Seeds won’t set as fast or firm, but are considered a “superfood” and contain protein, omega 3’s, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. While they do contain phytic acid that blocks the absorption of certain nutrients, if used in moderation, this should not be a problem.

Cornstarch

Cornstarch is extracted from corn, as the name suggests, and is another natural thickener to use in many different recipes, including jam and jelly. Cornstarch contains 107 calories per ounce, 25.6 grams of carbohydrates, and 2.5 mg. of sodium. It also contains a small amount of protein and some magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and potassium.

Gelatin

Collagen is extracted from the bones and hides of cows and pigs and processed to make gelatin powder which is used to thicken many products including gummy bears. It can also be used to thicken jam and other fruit products. Unsweetened gelatin powder contains 94 calories per packet and is high in protein.

Jello

The main ingredient in jello is gelatin powder which adds the thickening agent. Just keep in mind as you add jello to a batch of jam that you are adding 320 calories, 400 mg of sodium, 76 grams of carbs, 76 grams of sugars, and 8 grams of protein to your batch of jam. However, you can use the sugar-free version which only adds 40 calories, 220 mg of sodium, and no carbs or sugars.  But keep in mind that with the sugar-free version, you are adding aspartame. I personally would rather add more sugar than aspartame, and will not add any kind of artificial sweetener to my jam.

Pectin

Pectin is a carbohydrate found of most types of fruit but in different amounts. The pectin used in making jam and jelly is extracted mainly from apples, cherries, concord grapes, and some citrus fruits, all of which are high in naturally-occurring pectin. Pectin contains 167 calories per prepackaged 1.75-ounce box, is high in fiber and carbohydrates, and contains some sodium. Here is my favorite pectin brand, in case you were wondering. It’s by far the best I’ve ever used.

Tapioca

Tapioca is one of the better options for toddlers as it is extracted from cassava tubers, so it is also a natural carbohydrate. And, because tapioca has no common allergens, is easily digested and cholesterol-free, contains fiber, iron, manganese, calcium, and vitamin B, and is low in sodium, it should be a healthy product to use in your jam and jelly. But keep in mind, tapioca is also high in carbs and calories.

About The Various Thickener Types

There are many different recipes and ingredients that can be used in making jam and jelly. There are also many thickeners that can be used, including gelatin powder and jello. Here are my recommendations for six different thickeners and how to use them.

1. Chia Seeds

  • For Jelly: I wouldn’t recommend using chia seeds as a thickener for jelly. The result would not be a clear liquid and the chia seeds would not be sufficient to form a gel.
  • For Jam: Use chia seeds in refrigerator jam as a healthy alternative thickener. If you would prefer not to have the whole seeds in your jam, blend the jam before pouring it into the jars. You can use the refrigerator jam for jello shown above.

2. Cornstarch

  • For Jelly: Thickening jelly with cornstarch might be possible, but to add enough to get a good gel might change the taste of your jelly.
  • For Jam: Cornstarch can be substituted for pectin in any jam recipe as heat activates the gelling process in cornstarch, but stir it constantly as it burns easily. Use 2 tablespoons of cornstarch for every 4 cups of fruit.

3. Gelatin

  • For Jelly: I would not recommend using gelatin to thicken jelly because using such a large amount of liquid would prevent the jello from gelling.
  • For Jam: I would only use gelatin as a thickener for jam if you are making a small batch of refrigerator jam. The regular jam recipe that requires a boiling water bath would cause the thickening agent in gelatin to fail because of the excessive heat process. Try the recipe shown above for refrigerator jam.

4. Jello

  • For Jelly: There is a recipe out there for jello jelly which uses the jello for flavor. Pectin is used as the thickener, and other ingredients are water, vinegar, and sugar.  The jello is not used as a thickener in this recipe.
  • For Jam: Jello makes a great thickener for jam as you are working with the fruit and not just fruit juice. The flavor in jello will add a whole new dimension to your jam. A recommended refrigerator jam recipe using jello is posted above for your convenience.

5. Pectin

  • For Jelly: Pectin is the best thickener to use for jelly because of high temperatures used in the jelly-making process, because pectin is a naturally-occurring product found in fruit, and because it is easier to consistently get a good set to your jelly by using pectin since you are using only juice and sugar.  I would not recommend using any other thickener than pectin for jelly.
  • For Jam: The best thickener to use for jam which requires a boiling water bath process is pectin.

6. Tapioca

  • For Jelly: As with cornstarch, thickening jelly with tapioca might be possible, but would change the taste and texture of your jelly.
  • For Jam: Use 1&1/2 teaspoons of quick-cooking tapioca for 5 cups of fruit. Slowly bring fruit, sugar, lemon juice, and tapioca to a simmer and cook at a low simmer for approximately 45 minutes. Amounts of sugar and lemon juice will depend on the kind of fruit you are using. Check a recipe for those amounts needed. 

Final Thoughts

The traditional way of making jelly and jam includes using pectin as a thickener. Pectin is a carbohydrate found in fruit, the highest amount found in apples, grapes, cherries, and some citrus fruit. And though jelly is easier to make successfully by using fruit pectin, there are other ways to thicken jam and preserves.

Preserves are generally made by putting the fruit and sugar in a pot without pectin or other thickener and cooking them slowly until they thicken. By adding the strawberry jello, the length of time they must be cooked can be shortened as the jello acts as a thickening agent, and the flavor of strawberries added to the figs greatly enhances the taste. Strawberry figs are considered a delicacy and are very easy to make!

Gather your kids or grandkids and your fresh fruit and make some refrigerator jam. Start with the fruit that is available to you. If you have more than one kind of fruit to use at any given time, mix them up for a new flavor. Using jello as your thickener, you can use a refrigerator jam recipe such as the one listed above and choose any flavor jello that you like. With 22 different flavors available to use, see what combinations you can create! I bet the kids can think of some fantastic creations! The sky is the limit!

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Photo courtesy of Smabs Sputzer via flickr.com

Anne James

Hi, I'm Anne but my grandchildren call me Jelly Grandma. I hope your visit here has been a sweet one.

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