With cooler weather around the corner and Rosh Hashanah just past, it’s time to reach for your honey pot. If your summer was full of honey-themed cocktails and BBQ’s, it’s quite possibly still on the kitchen counter but if you enjoy honey “only in my tea when I’m not feeling well” it might be in the darkest corner of your cupboard most likely crystallized. No, it is not spoiled and you don’t have to throw it out. Right now, honey is having a moment as the next artisanal food superstar. Partly because bees are disappearing – you’ve heard about colony collapse sparking a beekeeping craze and partly because honey is believed by many to relieve symptoms of colds and seasonally allergies.
Honey is the only food made by an insect that humans consume and although it was found in the tombs of the Pharaohs, honey can last forever if stored properly – in a cool, dry place, yet it will loose its delicate flavors and health benefits over time. Most people think that honey is honey is honey but it’s not. I’m going to help demystify the flavorful world of honey so that you can be an informed honey connoisseur and navigate your way around the delicious and diverse world of natures oldest and only raw sweetener.
Let’s start from the beginning, honeybees make honey from the nectar of flowers – often mistaken for pollen, that golden dust bee’s carry flower to flower which pollinates plants to produce fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds and a laundry list of foods we eat daily. Nectar is the sweet liquid secreted by most flowers mainly to seduce bees to pollinate them. Honey-making is women’s work, it is the female worker bee who visits flowers, sucks up the liquid nectar with her tongue and carries it back to the hive where it is transformed it into honey. She adds some of her own enzymes – invertase that will break down the sucrose rich nectar into fructose and glucose which then magically changes it into honey. For this reason, honey is not considered vegan. Workers will then flap their wings to reduce the water content of the honey to a perfect 18% to keep it stable then they store it in their own beeswax. When there is plenty of floral nectar available and the environmental conditions are pleasant, a healthy colony of honeybees will make and even hoard honey specifically to feed their colony throughout our long cold winters. Wise beekeepers only harvest the excess honey beyond what the colony needs to overwinter. With that said, a bee makes a mere 1/12th teaspoon of honey in her entire lifetime and nationally beekeepers only produce 1/3rd of what we consume as a nation. So pure honey is quite rare and is perhaps the reason the ancients dubbed it “liquid gold”!
Consider that when honeybees gather nectar from different flowers throughout the season, the honey takes on different qualities, and since different flowers bloom at different times and in different locations, every drop of honey will be slightly different in color, aroma and flavor….If you’re a wine drinker this just might sound familiar – different grapes make different wines as different flowers make up different honeys? This is the terroir of honey at work…..honey is truly a product of the floral source, region and season.
Here are some of the common terms you might come across when navigating the vast world of honey. Look for honey that is not just sweet, it should also have layers of flavor some are more complex than others. Connecticut has many different floral sources for bees to make honey, so the honey produced will be a wide range of colors, aromas and flavors. In the end, the best honey is the one that you like and that tastes the best to you.
1. What is Raw Honey?
Raw simply means unheated or not pasteurized. Honey in its purest form is naturally a raw and stable food. Inside the beehive, bees maintain temperature on average at 92F, to keep their brood warm. When honey is heated above 140F for extended periods of time, it will not only loose its delicate flavor, but also its beneficial enzymes. It’s simply not necessary to heat honey and most beekeepers do not, why would we add more work to an already sticky and labor-intensive process? Unless you are purchasing your honey from a commercial brand or producer, there’s little need to worry if your honey from a beekeeper was overly heated.
2. Local Honey
Local is relative, some say 50 miles and others extend to 100 miles. If it’s the local pollen you are concerned with, Fairfield County has pretty much the same flowers and pollen as Litchfield and New Haven Counties and similar species even carry over throughout New England and some across the nation. One thing for sure, is that all honey has the same inherent chemical composition that qualify its health benefits – low pH environment where most bacterial cannot survive, hygroscopic properties meaning moisture absorbing (robbing bacterial of essential water to survive) also perfect for baking and an enzyme added by bees called glucose oxidase which yields hydrogen peroxide giving honey its temporary anti-microbial properties. In truth, the total amount of pollen in any honey sample rarely tops 0.5 percent and pollen in honey is a good thing, but your real benefits are coming from the actual quality of the honey.What you should be most concerned with is getting your hands on the freshest, raw honey and if it was produced in your own town or county even better to support your local beekeeper and economy!
3. Organic: What’s the buzz here?
There are many different criteria for organic honey and different organizations that regulate them. There are two things to consider about honey that is labeled organic. First, since bees travel up to four miles to gather nectar can a beekeeper know for sure or control the immediate environment where their bees work? Second, ask your beekeeper how they manage their colonies. Honeybees are agricultural livestock so pest and diseases must be managed. Organic honey is produced in some remote areas of the U.S. that are relatively chemical free also in some countries like Brazil, Mexico and the E.U. Until we can say we have a truly clean environment, we will not taste organic honey in our area any time soon.
4. Why Honey in the Comb?
Honeycomb is simply honey, in its original beeswax exactly how the bees made it. Honeybees secrete beeswax to make their hexagon shaped cells in order to store their precious honey. Beeswax is plant based and edible, look for fresh, clean white wax that is emollient enough to spread on bread. Slicing into honeycomb pops open the beeswax cells to reveal the freshest, most delicate flavored honey that is being exposed to the air since the bees made it. Enjoy honeycomb on a platter of cheese, sliced apples, dates with nuts and crusty bread – and yes, you can eat the wax!
5. Why does my Honey Crystallize?
Most honey will crystallize over time – some quicker than others and there are only a few varietals that will not - tupelo, sage and black locust. Generally, when the glucose content is higher than the fructose, and honey is stored around 50F it will naturally crystallize. Look for honey that crystallizes completely and evenly, be concerned if it separates into layers this could mean the glucose has separated from the water and may begin fermenting. If it begins to smell like baked bread or mead, time to toss it out. This past summer I visited with some beekeepers in the Napa Valley who were selling their limited harvest fermented honey to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry as a delicacy. Again, the best honey is what you like and what taste good to you! There are a few reasons honey ferments and they are concerning extreme temperature fluctuation and water content at harvest time. Under normal circumstances, crystallization is a sign of quality and it means your honey has not been mixed with other sweeteners. If you must make it liquid again, place your honey jar in a pot of very hot water, and stir often until it melts, it will eventually crystallize again. Why not spread it on warm toast with butter and cinnamon, you’ll be glad you did.
Marina Marchese is the designer and beekeeper behind the beloved brand Red Bee Honey, and the author of Honeybee: Lessons from An Accidental Beekeeper and The Honey Connoisseur: Selecting, Tasting, and Pairing Honey. She is a Member – Italian National Registry of Experts in the Sensory Analysis of Honey and founder of The American Honey Tasting Society. If you have any questions about honey please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.