Honey

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Raw Italian Honey

Honey is the ancient sweetener of choice. Honey is generally syrupy and golden in colour, but can be a really dark mahogany colour for woodland honeys or depending on the flowers the bees have been visiting. Honey is basically a sugar syrup, split roughly: 38% fructose; 31% glucose and 7% maltose, unlike sugar which is almost all glucose. When crystals form this is glucose and the liquid is mainly fructose.

Honeys vary in colour and flavour depending on which flowers the bees got their nectar, and bee-kepers can get honeys with mainly one or other flower as its base. Colours vary from cream to golden through to brown or even black. Some can be red or purple. The flavours also vary, with some heather honeys containing a lot of protein. In essence, this is the wonder of honey, spectacular natural flavours in a natural sugar product.

Most honeys are blended for a uniform product and will contain honeys from a variety of sources that may change year-to-year. Blending is done to mix honeys that give particular colours, fragrance, or texture and plain cheapness to give a roughly similar runny (or solid) golden yellow colour every purchase. The is a wide choice of single flower honeys with much of the best coming from the Mediterranean and the USA. Orange blossom honey and woodland honey are firm favourites, or in Britain heather honey. Australian honeys are extraordinary with eucalyptus honey a complex and spicy affair, but an acquired taste.

The best honeys should be eaten raw and on their own. Or in sweets or pastries, e.g. baklava, that do not need cooking. The most flavoursome are excellent mixed into homemade yoghurt.

There are three general forms of honey:

  • Comb honey: this is the most nutritious form of honey, but you will have to accept some wax when you eat it. Comb honey is untreated and dear. Stand the comb upright not flat, looking at which way the cells slope.
  • Clear honey: all honey will crystallise in time, but a crystallised honey has not gone off. You can get rid of the crystals by heating to about 60oC (140oF), but stirring encourages the crystals to form.
  • Set honey: a natural product helped on to this state by stirring the clear honey until the glucose starts crystallising out.

Honey can be used to substitute in cooking. Use same weight of honey as sugar, or if using volume (cups) then halve the volume, i.e. 1: 2 of honey:sugar. In baking it is best to only substitute some of the sugar in a baking recipe, up to about 25%. If using honey, reduce the oven temperature a tad to prevent overbrowning as honey burns more easily than sugar.

Flavoured Honeys

Examples include:

  • Alcahual: amber-coloured honey from Mexico
  • Barberry: amber coloured from flowers of barberries
  • Buckwheat: sometimes called Californian sage honey, very dark honey with a strong flavour
  • Clover: thick, pale amber and very popular honey
  • Eucalyptus: light to medium amber, from Australia, with flavours from sweet and light to uber sweet and cloying
  • Heather: a British classic
  • Hymetus: aromatic honey from Greece that combines thyme, savory and marjoram herbal tastes
  • Lavender: amber-coloured, with butter smooth texture
  • Manuka: thick, dark honey from New Zealand that's accreted many fables of superhuman health properties
  • Orange blossom: floral sweet and light coloured
  • Sunflower: golden-coloured, thin and very good quality
  • Sweet basil: very light in hue with a distinct herbal character

Further reading

  • Christian, G. (2005) Real Flavours: the handbook of gourmet & deli ingredients, Grub Street. ISBN 1904943209.
  • Stobart, T. (1981) The Cook's Encyclopedia: ingredients & processes, Harper & Row. ISBN 0060141271.