Every time it happens, it’s annoying.
You go to the refrigerator or cabinet to take out that expensive ingredient you’ve been saving for a special meal. And it’s spoiled.
Reluctantly, you pick up the heirloom tomatoes, cold-pressed juice – or god forbid, truffles. You shake your head, toss them into the garbage – and vow never to spend a lot of money on ingredients again.
Many people have gone through that agonizing experience with their expensive jars of tupelo or manuka honey, too. They see that the honey has solidified, figure that it’s gone bad, and throw it out.
They’re making a big mistake.
When honey (of any type) crystallizes after sitting on the shelf for a short period of time, it’s not spoiled. In fact, it’s a sign that the honey is high-quality, because raw, pure and unfiltered honey is most likely to crystallize quickly – and when honey crystallizes, its quality and flavor are better preserved than when the honey is in a liquid state.
In short, all honey crystallizes sooner or later. It doesn’t matter what color(s) it develops or if it forms several layers of crystals and liquid in the jar. It’s not spoiled, and it’s perfectly fine to eat.
Some people actually prefer crystallized honey because it’s easier to spread on bread or stir into tea. Others eat the crystallized form like candy, directly from the jar.
However, it’s not hard to decrystallize honey and restore it to its original, gooey form with all of the flavor and nutrients intact.
You just have to do it the right way.
Why Does Honey Crystallize? Because It’s So Sweet
Yes, this is going to be a science lesson, but we’ll keep it brief and understandable.
The composition of honey is around 70% sugar (both glucose and fructose) and less than 20% water. That’s a lot more sugar than can naturally be dissolved into a relatively small amount of water. So honey, by its very nature, is an “unstable” solution.
At some point, the water can’t continue to hold that oversaturation of sugar, so sugar molecules begin to “leave” the solution and form sugar crystals. Glucose has less solubility in water than fructose, so any variety of honey that contains a high amount of glucose (like lavender or clover honeys) will crystallize quickly and form fine, smooth crystals. Fructose stays dissolved in the water much longer, but when honey is high in fructose (like acacia and tupelo honeys) does finally crystallize it will be in gritty, large crystals.
The bottom line: your crystallized honey hasn’t gone bad – in fact, honey never goes bad. Its water and sugar have just returned to their normal physical state, and can easily be recombined to form the luscious, thick honey you expected to see when you picked up the jar.
How to Decrystallize Honey – The Right Way
It’s easy to decrystallize honey; it simply needs to be heated.
But you have to exercise great caution when doing that, because overheating the honey will damage its natural nutrients and its overall quality. For that reason, experts recommend decrystallizing honey in small batches, allowing you to maintain control over the temperature of the water that’s being used.
Here’s the recipe.
- Make sure your crystallized honey is in an uncapped glass jar or container. (A ceramic container will also work.) Never leave the honey in a “Honey Bear” or other plastic container for this process; spoon the crystallized honey into a glass jar instead.
- Put the jar into a bowl or container that’s larger and taller than the jar, so you can create a water bath for the honey jar.
- Heat water to 100-110°F, and pour enough into the bowl so its level is in between the top of the honey and the top of the jar. Make sure the water level isn’t so high that water splashes into the honey, and make sure the water isn’t hotter than 110° because that will damage enzymes, antioxidants and pollen in the honey. Even more importantly, don’t use water over 140°, which damages the honey’s quality, or water over 160° which caramelizes the sugars in the honey and destroys it.
- Let the honey sit in the water bath until it liquefies, stirring gently every few minutes. It’s best to monitor the water temperature to be sure it doesn’t fall below 100°, and add more warm water to the bath if necessary.
- Be patient. It can take an hour for the honey to decrystallize completely. When you’re satisfied, cap the jar and put it into a dry, cool place for storage.
- Only decrystallize as much honey as you need; putting your honey through this process repeatedly will cause its taste and aroma to fade.
If you’ve done things properly, your honey will be smooth and gooey again, and just as good as it was when you bought it.
How to Decrystallize Honey – The Wrong Way
We aren’t including this section to provide you with another way to decrystallize a jar of honey. We just want to point out why this method, which you may see online or hear from your friends, is a bad idea.
The method is based on the fact that an hour is a long time to spend decrystallizing honey. If all you need is heat, why not just nuke it at low power?
There are two reasons not to take this down-and-dirty approach of putting crystallized honey in the microwave at 50% power for 30-60 seconds.
First, your honey will decrystallize after a little time at low heat in a microwave oven. But within a few hours (or less) it will crystallize again, because it only stays liquid while heat from the microwaves remains in the honey. To decrystallize honey for more than a day, you need to use a slow water bath. (Of course, you can’t “permanently” decrystallize honey since it will eventually crystallize again.)
Second, heat from a microwave is uneven and difficult to control, so the process is likely to damage the nutrients, the flavor and even the consistency of your honey.
How to Delay Crystallization in Honey
As we’ve mentioned, all honey eventually crystallizes. But there are steps you can take to delay the sugars in honey from separating into crystals.
- If you bottle your own honey, make sure the heat stays even at 100-140° during bottling, then blast it quickly with 140-160° heat to get rid of air bubbles and dissolve crystals that may have already formed.
- Make sure your honey is kept in air-tight containers, and store it in a cool and dry location where the temperature stays between 50-70°.
- Never refrigerate honey, because that will induce crystallization almost immediately.