Bird: Here's the latest buzz on the best honey

August 30, 2011

Recently, a friend and fellow beekeeper’s son posed the question, “What is the best honey?”

We talked about the many varieties of honey that we had sampled over the years and discussed different factors that influence honey as a food product and sweetener. I later had time to think about our visit while I was extracting the first of this year’s honey crop.

Honey is one of the few products of insect activity used by people for food, and honey bees are the only insects that collect nectar and store honey in a variety and amount suitable for later collection by beekeepers. The earliest references to honey collection and honey date back 10,000 years as indicated by cave paintings located in southwest Europe showing honey collection from a tree. Many cultures reference honey as important in food, medicine and religion. One of the few cultures that do not reference honey bees, bee hives, or honey are Native Americans. Honey bees are not native to North America and were introduced in the early 1600s. Several tribes called the honey bee the “white man’s fly.” This name for the honey bee came about as the result of honey bees appearing with settlers.

The sources of most honey are plant nectars, the sugary solutions produced by flowering plants made available to bees as well as other insects and animals. The nectar solutions are composed of water and sucrose along with all of the flavors, pigments, aromas, and bits of pollen produced by the source plant. Also found in plant nectars are small amounts of vitamins and minerals. Floral sources also influence the shade and taste differences found in honey. Nectar sources range from a single type of plant to many and change from season to season and year to year. Honey is truly a local product.

The sweetening effect of honey and table sugar cannot really be distinguished one from the other. The similarities between the two end there. Unlike table or granulated sugar made up of sucrose, which is also the sugar in nectar, the blend of honey contains mainly the sugars’ fructose and glucose made from splitting sucrose when worker bees add the enzyme, invertase, to the nectar solution. Maltose and the remaining sucrose round out the sugar blend. The worker bees then store the resulting product in the honeycomb, remove most of the water, and cap the honey. The stored honey is then ready for use at a later time.

The honey available to the consumer is usually packaged in liquid form and can range from raw to processed and blended. Locavores and many consumers prefer raw honey. The raw form is essentially honey as it exists in the comb. It is extracted from the comb and subjected to minimal filtering, removing only large wax and other particles. Pollen and small-wax particles are left in. Honey from large suppliers is usually blended using multiple sources of honey, filtered to remove most of the wax particles and pollen and pasteurized, producing a uniform product that has a long shelf life.

Honey can also be found as comb honey, still in the wax comb; chunk honey, packaged as pieces of comb honey in liquid honey; and creamed honey, also called whipped or spun honey. Creamed honey has been processed to stabilize crystallization.

Because honey is a natural product, the glucose in the solution will eventually return to a solid or crystallized form. Crystallized honey can be returned to a liquid form if it is heated in warm water and stirred. It should also be noted that honey should not be given to children under 1 year of age.

Substituting honey for sugar in cooking and baking in the home is once again becoming popular and requires recipe adjustments. Honey is measured and sold by weight. Twelve ounces of honey yields approximately one cup of volume. Replacing sugar with honey in baking can be done in equal volumes, but be sure to reduce the amount of other liquids by one-fourth cup for each cup of honey used. Recipes requiring eggs and no additional liquid should increase the amount of flour by two tablespoons per cup of honey used. Oven temperature is often reduced by 25 degrees to prevent overbrowning. Non-essential measurements in recipes seem to require less honey because of the greater sweetening effect. Unless you are using a tested recipe, be sure to try it out first.

Finally, back to the original question: What is the best honey? Whatever honey is being used at the time.

Bruce Bird is a local beekeeper and has been keeping bees for 10 years.