Honey is one of the most sublime among the sweet things in life. Produced by the labor of industrious bees, this golden elixir echoes the fragrance and flavors of the hundreds of thousands of flowers that contributed nectar to its making.
Natural foods stores often stock a much wider range of honeys than are available in standard supermarkets, including varieties from local beekeepers. With a little background on the right way to use honey in cooking and when to use a lower grade honey rather than a more costly, high-grade variety, retailers can help their customers distinguish between these many varieties.
Honey is available in hundreds of varieties from across the United States and around the world. A fine honey, like a fine wine, can be distinguished by its subtlety of flavor and color. Just as the taste and hue of a wine has much to do with the climate and soil in which the grapes grow, so the flavor and color of a fine honey depends on the nectar sources available to a particular hive. Honeys range from nearly clear to dark brown and can taste lightly floral (such as an orange blossom honey) or full and malty (like buckwheat honey), with a large range of flavors and colors in between.
How Bees Do It
Honey is the sweet nectar that bees harvest from flowers. The bee's saliva naturally splits the sugar contained in the nectar into two simple sugars, dextrose and fructose, as it is swallowed. The honeybee ingests some of the nectar as nourishment, and when it returns to the hive, deposits the remainder into the honeycomb where it becomes food for young bees.
Bees and plants have a symbiotic relationship. Bees need plants for nourishment, and they in turn serve a vital role in the fertilization process of flowers. As bees gather nectar from the flowers, pollen from the anthers sticks to their legs. When they move to other flowers, the pollen clinging to their legs is transferred to the ovules of other flowers.
About one-third of the human diet is derived from insect-pollinated plants, and honey bees are responsible for 80 percent of this pollination, says the National Honey Board. Thus, the humble bee, in the course of making honey, is the essential agent in producing a third of the world's food.
Once the honey has served its function in the hive, the beekeeper steps in and begins to coax honey from the comb without disturbing the bees. The honeycomb is gently crushed to free the honey from the beeswax. Because honey isn't naturally liquid, many honey producers warm the crushed honeycomb to liquify and extract the honey.
Another method used to harvest honey is "cold extraction," a process that creates fine, high-end honeys. Though this process is slower—and therefore more costly—the subtle flavors of the honey aren't destroyed as they can be when honey is heated. If left unheated, cold-extracted honey will gradually, through its own natural process, crystalize into tiny, uniform sugar crystals. The result is a luxuriously creamy, opaque, even-textured honey.
"Whipped honey" is somewhat similar in appearance to cold-extracted honey, but created through a different process. Whipped honey, also known as creamed, sugared or spun honey, is heated, then beaten as it cools to help control the crystallization process. The result is a light-colored honey that appears solid, but at room temperature can be spread like butter. Because it has been heated, however, subtle flavors that would survive in the cold-extraction method are lost.
Honey also comes in a comb variety that is exactly as it was produced by the bees—in the wax comb. The comb, as well as the honey, is edible. Chunk-style honey, a variation of comb honey, contains pieces of the honeycomb in the jar.
So Much Honey, So Little Time
Of all the natural sweeteners, honey is the most diverse in character. This diversity is a direct reflection of the nectar sources that the bees were visiting. The National Honey Board estimates bees may travel as far as 55,000 miles and visit more than 2 million flowers to gather enough nectar to make just a pound of honey. Honey is usually named after the flower from which the nectar is gathered, such as eucalyptus, clover or sage.
More distinctive honeys, such as buckwheat, Tupelo (derived from the blossoms of Tupelo gum trees) or heather, are usually only available in limited quantities in the region where they are produced. Others, such as clover and alfalfa, are available nationwide. Honeys can vary dramatically in color, viscosity and taste. A general rule of thumb is that the darker the color of a honey, the stronger and more distinctive, though not necessarily sweeter, the flavor.
Cooking With Honey: A Sticky Business
Honey may be used as a natural sweetener in most recipes, from marinades for tofu or meat to soups and sauces, or for subtle sweetness in most baked goods—but expensive honeys may be wasted in cooking. Mild varieties, such as clover or alfalfa, are preferable for most recipes because honey often loses its distinctive, subtle flavors when it is heated. A very intensely flavored honey (such as buckwheat) may dominate a dish in an undesirable way.
When substituting honey for sugar in a recipe, use about a half cup of honey for each cup of sugar called for, and reduce the liquid by a quarter cup. Baked goods made with honey darken easily because the sugars in the honey tend to caramelize. Honey is a moisture-absorbing ingredient, so it extends the shelf life of baked goods but may produce a more dense and less crisp texture than desired. Although honey does make a good sugar substitute, bakery products made with honey should not be labeled "vegan," as honey is produced by bees.
While honey is considered by many as more "wholesome" than sugar, it actually has a fairly equivalent nutritional value, and enters the bloodstream as quickly as white sugar. Although honeys vary in sweetness, their average nutritional makeup is 38 percent fructose, 31 percent glucose, 18 percent water and 2 percent sucrose. A note of caution: Honey has been known to transmit infant botulism in children under the age of 1.
Many natural foods advocates and holistic healers also recommend eating locally produced honeys as a means of staving off local allergies such as hay fever. The theory is that when consuming honey, you ingest trace amounts of allergens that were in the pollen used to produce the honey, and thus build up a resistance.
As one of nature's sweetest bounties, there's nothing more natural than the amber nectar produced by honeybees. As good for the plants as it is for delighting your palate, honey is one of the sweet joys of life.
Mary Taylor and Lynn Ginsburg are the co-authors of What Are You Hungry For? (St. Martin's Press, 2002) and can be reached via www.whatareyouhungryfor.net.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 11/p. 20, 23
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 11/p. 23
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 11/p. 23