Honey is the wonderfully rich golden liquid that is the miraculous product of honeybees and a naturally delicious alternative to white sugar. Although it is available throughout the year, it is an exceptional treat in the summer and fall when it has just been harvested and is at its freshest.
Honey comes in a range of colors including white, amber, red, brown and almost black. Its flavor and texture vary with the type of flower nectar from which it was made. While the most commonly available honeys are made from clover, alfalfa, heather and acacia flowers, honey can be made from a variety of different flowers, including thyme, buckwheat, and lavender.
The fascinating process of making honey begins when the bees feast on flowers, collecting the flower nectar in their mouths. This nectar then mixes with special enzymes in the bees' saliva, a process that turns it into honey. The bees carry the honey back to the hive where they deposit it into the cells of the hive's walls. The fluttering of their wings provides the necessary ventilation to reduce the moisture's content making it ready for consumption.
Honey has been used since ancient times both as a food and as a medicine. Apiculture, the practice of beekeeping to produce honey, dates back to at least 700 BC. For many centuries, honey was regarded as sacred due to its wonderfully sweet properties as well as its rarity. It was used mainly in religious ceremonies to pay tribute to the gods, as well as to embalm the deceased. Honey was also used for a variety of medicinal and cosmetic purposes. For a long time in history, its use in cooking was reserved only for the wealthy since it was so expensive that only they could afford it.
The prestige of honey continued for millennia until one fateful event in culinary and world history—the "discovery" of refined sugar made from sugar cane or sugar beets. Once these became more widely available, they were in great demand since they provided a relatively inexpensive form of sweetening. With their growing popularity, honey became displaced by sugar for culinary use. Since then, although honey is still used for sweetening, much of its use has become focused on its medicinal properties and its use in confectionary.
In addition to its reputation as Nature's nutritive sweetener, research also indicates that honey's unique composition makes it useful as an antimicrobial agent and antioxidant.
The health benefits of honey—like all foods—do depend on the quality of the honey. But in this case, the situation is even more extreme, because the pollen that collects on the bees' legs as they move from plant to plant is only as healthful and as diverse as those plants. In addition, the processing of honey often removes many of the phytonutrients found in raw honey as it exists in the hive. Raw honey, for example, contains small amounts of the same resins found in propolis.
Propolis, sometimes called "bee glue," is actually a complex mixture of resins and other substances that honeybees use to seal the hive and make it safe from bacteria and other micro-organisms. Honeybees make propolis by combining plant resins with their own secretions. However, substances like road tar have also been found in propolis. Bee keepers sometimes use special screens around the inside of the hive boxes to trap propolis, since bees will spread this substance around the honeycomb and seal cracks with the anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal resins.
The resins found in propolis only represent a small part of the phytonutrients found in propolis and honey, however. Other phytonutrients found both in honey and propolis have been shown to possess cancer-preventing and anti-tumor properties. These substances include caffeic acid methyl caffeate, phenylethyl caffeate, and phenylethyl dimethylcaffeate. Researchers have discovered that these substances prevent colon cancer in animals by shutting down activity of two enzymes, phosphatidylinositol-specific phospholipase C and lipoxygenase. When raw honey is extensively processed and heated, the benefits of these phytonutrients are largely eliminated.
Honey is sold in individual containers or in bulk. It is usually pasteurized, although oftentimes at farmer's markets you can find raw honey. Raw honey that has not been pasteurized, clarified, or filtered—provided it is of the highest nutritional quality and safety—is your best choice. Look for honey that states "100% pure." While regular honey is translucent, creamy honey is usually opaque and is made by adding finely crystallized honey back into liquid honey. Specialty honeys, made from the nectar of different flowers, such as thyme and lavender, are also available. Remember that the darker the color, the deeper the flavor.
It is important to keep honey stored in an airtight container so that it doesn't absorb moisture from the air. Honey stored this way in a cool dry place will keep almost indefinitely. One reason for this is that its high sugar content and acidic pH help to inhibit microorganism growth. Honey that is kept at colder temperatures tends to thicken, while honey that is kept at higher temperatures has a tendency to darken and have an altered flavor.
If your honey has crystallized, placing the container in hot water for 15 minutes will help return it to its liquid state. Do not heat honey in the microwave as this alters its taste by increasing its hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) content. To prevent honey from sticking to measuring cups and spoons, use honey that is in its liquid form.
Honey makes a good replacement for sugar in most recipes. Since honey is sweeter than sugar, you need to use less, one-half to three-quarters of a cup for each cup of sugar. For each cup of sugar replaced, you should also reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe by one-quarter of a cup. In addition, reduce the cooking temperature by 25°F since honey causes foods to brown more easily.
Some of our favorite ways to use honey include:
Remember that the quality of honey is a function of the plants and environment from which pollen, saps, nectars and resins were gathered. Other substances found in the environment—including traces of heavy metals, pesticides, and antibiotics—have been shown to appear in honey. The amount varies greatly.
Do not feed honey-containing products or use honey as a flavoring for infants under one year of age; honey may contain Clostridium botulinum spores and toxins that can cause infant botulism, a life-threatening paralytic disease.