On Pectin Set and the Poke Test

With a guest recipe from Camilla Wynne's Jam Bake

September is the month of fruit abundance. Our farmer’s markets are already beginning to offer the leading edge of the year’s apple and grape harvest, while their tables remain laden with August’s peaches, plums, nectarines, and berries. I’m no fan of the turn from Summer to Autumn, but I’ll take the bounty of this month as consolation for the waning hours of daylight and diminishing temperatures.

Preserving is obviously one way to capture a sliver of summer and carry it with you into the darker days ahead. And there’s no better guide to doing so than Camilla Wynne’s new book, Jam Bake. Not only is it a comprehensive handbook to making preserves from all manner of fruits, it includes alongside each jam or jelly recipe a separate baking recipe to utilize it in. Wynne is both a certified Master Preserver and a pastry chef, and it is clear that you are in expert hands from the book’s first pages. (I’ve only made one recipe from the book so far, but I’ve been around cookbooks long enough to spot a reliable one from a mile away.)

Reading Jam Bake recently helped me to take note of a crabapple tree just a block from my home, one that has surely been there longer than the 20+ years I’ve lived in this neighborhood, but had somehow never noticed. While I caught it late in its fruiting season this year, I did manage to harvest a few pounds, more than enough to make Camilla’s crabapple jelly recipe. And it came out wonderfully. I haven’t yet made her accompanying “spoon cookie”—so named because each half of the jelly-filled sandwich cookie is made using a spoon as a mold—but I definitely plan to.

Crabapples are are rich in pectin, so they don’t require a whole lot of skill to get them to gel, at least not relative to low-pectin fruits like peaches or raspberries. But still, as with all jams and jellies, you need to know what to look for when you are cooking them down, in order to be sure you’ve hit the pectin’s “setting point”. Wynne dedicates a full five pages of Jam Bake to the subject, which shows you how hard it can be to pull off (and to explain clearly—which she does).

The most reliable test for pectin set is to observe how the hot jam runs off of the spatula as you stir it while it reduces. At first, it will run off the spatula like water, but over time it will begin to cling more tightly; eventually, as Camilla explains it, it will “declare undying love for the spatula, clinging to it fiercely and declaring wild horses will never tear them apart!” (Which is both an apt description and an example of the humor that the book is infused with.)

The thing is, while a solid, clear description of what to look for is essential to learning a skill like this, it is still no substitute for experience and observation, because the thing that happens is not a simple phase-change flip from one state to another, but rather a gradual shift across an infinite series of micro-states. The jelly starts out liquid and runny, becoming thicker and more clingy over time, and what is most important is to be testing it all along the way, to be present for the entire sequence of transformation. Only then is the “endpoint” obvious.

Doing this for my crabapple jelly making reminded me of a parallel moment in bread baking: the poke test. This is the familiar step in which you judge the proof of a loaf of bread by gently poking it with a fingertip and then observing how quickly the depression springs back. Over the years I’ve been teaching bread baking, I’ve never quite felt satisfied that I knew how to clearly communicate how to perform this test, despite understanding full well how to use it myself.

In a written recipe, the usual instruction goes something like this: “Proof loaf until the dough springs back slowly when poked gently with a fingertip”. Which is accurate and clear, but still not comprehensive enough. “Springs back slowly” only really makes sense—only really means anything at all—in the context of everything that happens before that moment. The dough springs back “slowly” only relative to how it springs back prior to that point. The process is best understood as a dynamic, ongoing transformation, a movement across an infinite number of shifting states, and not an instantaneous flip from underproofed to fully-proofed.

While this can seem confounding to the beginner, the good news is that it also means that “fully-proofed” is not a single moment that needs to be jumped on immediately lest the dough overproof, but rather a window of time during which the dough is good to go. The point is to get the loaf into the oven while it is still “on the way up”—i.e., expanding in volume as gases build up within—but also starting to slow down, a sign that the yeast is on the verge of running out of gas (literally and figuratively).

The best way to learn how to do the poke test is to do the poke test, starting well before the dough is likely to be fully-proofed. And to repeat the test regularly until you begin to notice a change in the springiness in the dough. (And to repeat it again a few minutes later, to confirm for yourself that you weren’t just imagining things.) After doing this on many loaves, it all becomes second nature, and you won’t need to perform the test very many times on any particular loaf.

Now I can tell you all that—as I just did—but nothing will teach you how to do it better than doing it will.

[EDIT: A conversation just now about this post with my friend James Bridges, aka Louisville’s The Grainwright, reminded me that I meant to point out that this isn’t meant to just be about the poke test. Really, what I want to get across is that most aspects of bread baking are dynamic processes rather than simple phase changes, and success with it hinges on grasping this.]

Speaking of that crabapple jelly: Camilla has generously given me permission to share her recipe with you all. Hopefully you can find some crabapples in your neighborhood too, or, if not, buy some at a local farmer’s market or apple orchard.

Camilla’s Website

And I hope you’ll purchase a copy of her wonderful book. Like the jelly, it’s a treasure that will bring you joy all year long.