Honey Crystals: Natural Goodness or Funky Fermentation …

Honey is just about as good as it gets when you’re looking for something to dress up a cup of tea or a piece of bread and butter. Most scholars figure that honey predates written history where four-thousand-year-old Babylonian cuneiform writings describe it being used as currency and a way to pay tribute to both kings and the gods.

Anyway, the reason I’m so sweet on honey these days is that this is the time of year when we all should be packing it in for the winter. Experts say that late season honey, which typically is darker in color and starting to crystalize, is the cream of the honey crop, mostly because it has had time to marinate in the summer sweetness.

But why are there crystals forming in my Honey?

Well, it ain’t going bad, that’s for sure. In fact, honey has pretty much an indefinite shelf life. To answer this question, we first need to take a good look at the chemical composition of honey. I know, I know, I ain’t no chemist, but it really is quite simple. Basically, honey is made up of water, fructose and glucose (along with trace amounts of enzymes, minerals, vitamins and amino acids).

The crystals form when the balance of water and glucose changes over time. This is a natural process that beekeepers refer to as “set honey.” As the water content diminishes due to evaporation, the glucose becomes more prominent and those incredibly delicious crystals appear. The honey also darkens a bit over time, which adds to the goodness … much like aging a fine wine helps to develop the flavors.

Of course, crystals are more prominent in unprocessed honey, mostly because processing homogenizes the product so that it better maintains the water/glucose ratio. This crystallization process can begin within a couple weeks of harvest or take much longer. This all depends on the nectar source, whether or not the honey has been processed, and the storage temperature.

The flavor and color of the honey depends mainly on where the bees are harvesting the nectar. Clover honey taste a bit different from honey gathered from flowering fruit trees, for instance. Up here at the Dimond Hill Farm, the bees have access to a variety of vegetable, fruit, and flower blossoms that give our honey a distinct New England flavor. In general, the lighter color the honey is, the milder the flavor, while the darker honeys are typically more robust in flavor.

The main thing to remember, however, is that crystalized honey is not “spoiled” honey and does not impact the product’s quality. It is a natural process that condenses the flavors into a much richer taste for the consumer … which would be you.

So, how do I use Honey that has crystalized?

This is an easy question to answer. Crystallized honey can easily be brought back to its liquid form by gently heating it in a hot water bath. Remember to use indirect heat to avoid scorching (so no leaving the bottle on the wood stove). Use gentle heat, as overheating for any period of time will reduce the honey’s quality by destroying enzymes and artificially darkening the product.

Simply fill a pan with hot water (about 100 degrees, so tap water should do), remove the cover of the honey jar, place it into the pan, and let set for about twenty minutes. Crystalized honey is a poor conductor of heat, so you will have to stir and change the water halfway through the procedure.

Of course, Jane loves the honey crystals because they are convenient to spoon into a cup of hot tea and can be spread onto a piece of toast without dripping over the sides. And the flavor … well, you’re just going to have to judge for yourself.

Bottom Line:

As I am a “bottom line” kind of guy, the bottom line on this honey crystal thing is that crystallization is a natural process that happens to all honey sooner or later. Processed honey resists the transformation better than unprocessed honey, but it also sacrifices taste and nutrition to get you there. The honey darkens as a result of both nectar source and sugar content, with the dark honey more robust in taste and the lighter honey more delicate. Reversing the crystallization process is as easy as heating the honey up in a warm water bath … or you can embrace your inner crystal and try it as is with tea or toast … ummm good.

Show of hands … is anyone out there still reluctant to buy honey that has begun to crystalize? Anybody? If so, remember that the only perfect-looking products you’re going to find are in the local supermarket, where they have been genetically engineered and factory processed to appeal to our marketing-induced desire for products that are consistently pretty. Sure, if you are going to take a picture, by all means go for the processed supermarket honey. But if you are looking for the real thing in both taste and nutrition, then embrace nature’s time-tested methods of producing and preserving all that sweetness without all the factory fuss.

A Little Honey Trivia:

  • In order to make a single pound of honey, honeybees must visit more than two million flowers and fly a distance equal to about three times the Earth’s circumference
  • It takes a dozen worker bees a lifetime to make a single teaspoon of honey
  • Years ago, honey was commonly used as an ingredient in cement, furniture polish, varnish, and medicines (as well as alcoholic beverages, such as mead, that has been called “the nectar of the gods” … which, by coincidence, is how I refer to hard cider)
  • Cupid was rumored to dip his arrows in honey, which is why we use the word as a term of endearment these days … especially when we are in trouble …

So, there you go. Likely more than you wanted to know about honey crystals, but what are you going to do. There still is plenty of natural honey on the shelves at the Dimond Hill Farm Stand, so come on by and pick up a jar or two … after all, there’s nothing like a taste of summer to help you through those cold winter days ahead.

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