Honey: A Short Guide
What is honey?
Gloopy, sweet, naturally antibacterial honey is made by the tireless work of thousands of female bees who suck up nectar into a special stomach called the honey sac. They create an assembly line and regurgitate that nectar into each other’s sacs (sorry) until it thickens into honey. The bee nearest the honeycomb then spits it into one of those tiny perfect hexagons. The bees flap their wings and some of the water evaporates out of that honey, thickening it. Then another worker bee caps it off with some beeswax.
Where can I buy good honey?
Your best bet is to find local or regional honey at your market. The mass-produced honey is usually a cooked-down (pasteurized) blend of hundreds of different honeys and not nearly as flavorful.
What should I look for (or avoid) on the label when buying honey?
Honey jars usually list one ingredient: honey. But that doesn't tell you a whole lot about what you're getting. Here's how to decode a few other words you might encounter:
This is an unregulated term that refers to honey that’s either straight from the honeycomb or minimally heated. It can be cloudy (a sign it hasn’t been overly processed) and retains many of its good-for-you enzymes. Because it’s precious and expensive, save raw honey for when you can taste it front and center: on peanut butter toast, drizzled over a pound cake, by the spoonful before a run. You might notice a whiff of hay or notes of apricot, things like that. Use inexpensive clear and runny honey when you’re cooking or baking.
Another unregulated term. This generally means the honey has been strained to filter out dead bees (RIP) and/or their wings but not enough to remove other smaller, perfectly edible particles. Between you and me, it’s mostly a marketing term to make people feel like they’re getting a purer product.
It turns out it’s extremely hard to make organic honey. (YOU try telling bees to pollinate only certified-organic bushes.) Right now most organic honey comes from Brazil, Mexico, and Hawaii.
Run away! This is syrup made with fake sweetener. It’s meant for those on sugar-free diets, but the mysterious filler ingredients make it suspect for all.
What determines how honey tastes?
Honey's natural taste depends on what, and where, bees pollinate. This is different from flavored honey, which is honey mixed with added flavors, such as blueberry. Some common varieties include but are not limited to:
Wildflower and clover: these are mildly sweet
Buckwheat: dark, earthy, nuty, and molasses-like
Lavender: creamy and delicate, with subtle floral notes
Tupelo: tastes like green apples dipped in caramel.
Chestnut: bitter, bracing, sometimes smoky, and almost savory.
How should I store hone? Refrigerator? Unrefrigerated?
Keep honey in a cool dark place. It will never spoil if kept free of moisture, but it might start to taste off in about two years. Because honey is basically sugar and water, the glucose molecules will separate from the water, causing it to crystallize and look sort of like rock candy. In fact, Marchese tells me that “crystallization is a sign of quality”—it means you’ve got real-deal honey. When/if your honey crystallizes, just run the jar under warm water and it’ll reliquify. Marchese spreads her crystallized honey on toast.
How to stop honey from getting stuck in a measuring cup
The next time you’re cooking with honey, coat your measuring spoon or cup with a little neutral oil before adding the honey; it will slide right out. Very satisfying.
What about honey bears that are in all the grocery stores?
In 1957, Ralph and Luella Gamber decided to package their honey in a plastic bear inspired by Winnie the Pooh and by reality: bears love snacking on honey, beehives, and bees. What was once a side hobby in their Pennsylvanian backyard became a million-dollar business called Dutch Gold Honey. They never patented the design, which is why so many other companies have adopted the cute container. (Fun fact: the bear has a name. It’s Nugget.)
What about $$$Mānuka$$$ Honey?
Mānuka honey is a popular (and pricier) “monofloral” honey from bees that pollinate the Mānuka tree, grown in Australia and New Zealand. It has a higher concentration of antibacterial properties than regular honey. Make sure it’s the real stuff by checking to see if it has a UMF (Unique Mānuka Factor), NPA (non-peroxide activity), or MGO (methylglyoxal) rating on the label (each is a different measure of the antimicrobial content).