March 26, 2009

What is crystallized honey?

Chunk Honey

Besides delicious and expensive, it's simply honey that has turned from a liquid to a solid. Commercial producers sell it as Spun Honey, Creamed Honey or Whipped Honey.

All honey will crystallize eventually, and we’ve all had it in our cupboard at some point. It’s the same as the Spun/Crèmed/Whipped stuff, except that it hardened spontaneously, so is a bit grainy on the tongue. When carefully controlled, crystallized honey is luxuriously smooth, and spreadable like soft butter.

Never refrigerate your honey, as this will initiate spontaneous and rapid crystallization, resulting in a coarse granular honey; when you take it out, however, it will reliquefy. At room temp, the process happens much more slowly, and you have to heat the honey to reliquefy it. (If your honey has crystallized and you want liquid honey, simply place your honey jar in a bain marie (hot water bath). That’s the best way to get it. Use gentle heat only, as heating destroys enzymes and its nutritional value.)

Aside from temperature, honey can also crystallize if it gets “seeded” with small particles such as previously crystallized honey or even air bubbles. In general, raw honey crystallizes faster because it has more of these “nucleation sites” to start the process. I believe this is what happened to our honey, since the crush-and-strain method incorporates air into the honey and there are tiny bits of wax, propolis and pollen present. Yet, the same honey still in the comb is translucent and safe to feed to our replacement bees. (In case you missed the tweet, we ordered a 3# package of Carniolans.)

The rest of this post is a little off-topic, but I’m still learning blogger and it gave me good excuse to set up an expandable post.

What causes it to happen?
 It has to do with the organization of the sugar molecules in honey, particularly glucose. Honey also contains fructose and sucrose, the amounts of which vary from season to season. The three sugars, and different aromatic compounds, are dependent on the floral sources present, so the flavors and aromas of honey will be a little different from previous “vintages,” even from the same apiary. Each variety of honey will crystallize at a different rate, some taking just weeks and others years.

Have you ever noticed that it’s almost impossible to stir sugar into Iced Tea but it’s easy with hot tea?

Honey is a “Super Saturated Solution,” a term that should be familiar to Pastry Chefs in the know. Simple Syrup is a super saturated solution, in which the liquid being super-saturated is water, and it’s saturated with guess what? Sugar, in this case sucrose.

You can only dissolve a certain amount of sugar in cold water. The exact amount, I don’t know, but when you exceed it you end up with super sweet water and a bunch of undissolved sugar hanging out at the bottom of the pot.

Heating the water “inverts” the sugar, breaking down its molecules – sucrose becomes glucose and fructose. In its disaccharide form, sugar recrystallizes readily. Broken down into monosaccharides, it won't recrystallize. Additionally, water can hold more of these smaller components, so the solution becomes saturated with them. As you continue to heat, the sucrose completely breaks down and the water gets cooked off. If you used cream instead of water, you could end up with a super saturated solution such as these.

Some chefs will add a pinch of Cream of Tartar or lemon juice because the enzymes speed up the inversion and control the crystallization process. Time is money, but the slower the process, the smoother the finished product.

Bees invert nectar – but only partially so that's why honey crystallizes – by secreting enzymes from glands in their heads (or is that Royal Jelly?). In any case, they’re little Pastry Chefs, so it’s no wonder I’m so drawn to them!

About the photo: I know, I know, bad bad photo... I'm playing around with the new point-and-shoot. Click here to see a photo of a good jar of Chunk Honey. There, now I don't feel so bad about my photo.


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