Even if you didn’t know what to call it until now, you certainly know what it looks like.
There’s something wrong with your jar or bottle of honey. It’s turned lighter, but more importantly, what’s at the bottom of the jar (or the entire jar’s contents) has solidified. Instead of luscious, liquid honey, it’s into a crunchy mess.
That solid stuff is simply the result of natural honey crystallization. But what can you do about it, and how can you prevent it from happening?
To properly answer those questions, it helps to understand why the crystallization process happens.
Why Does Honey Crystallize?
Here’s the short answer, which scientists would understand. Honey is a supersaturated solution composed mainly of glucose, fructose and water. Over time, glucose molecules naturally fall out of solution and attach to available nuclei. Crystals form as a result.
Assuming that you’re not a scientist and that you don’t remember much from your high school science classes, here’s a simpler explanation.
Honey is mostly just sugar and water – in other words, a sugar solution. In fact, there’s too much sugar to remain dissolved in the water for a long period of time. Eventually some of that sugar, the glucose, separates out and attaches to small bits of bee pollen, propolis or beeswax in the honey, forming crystals.
The result is either honey in a semi-solid state (with its other ingredients suspended inside of the sugar crystals), or a jar filled with honey that’s completely solidified. That’s crystalized honey.
The important takeaways:
- Honey crystallizes over time, naturally.
- Glucose is the sugar that forms crystals.
- The glucose attaches to small, solid “stuff” in the honey to create crystals.
- Crystallized honey is still honey, it’s just no longer in its liquid form.
Let’s take that information and figure out what it means in practical terms.
Some Types of Honey Will Crystallize More Slowly
One approach to preventing the crystallization of honey: buy honey that’s slow to crystallize.
Heavily Processed Honey
If glucose attaches to small pieces of the “other stuff” in honey, that implies that removing most of the “stuff” would actually slow down crystallization.
That’s definitely true, and it’s one way to keep honey from crystallizing: buy “pure” honey. Unfortunately, that also means buying honey without most of its nutritional and health benefits.
Raw honey – the type that beekeepers harvest from beehives and just lightly strain – contains the small pieces of propolis (bee glue), pollen and beeswax we mentioned earlier. Even though those small particles are what glucose attaches to in order to form crystals, they also provide the real benefits of honey.
Once honey moves from the beekeeping to the processing stage, though, many companies don’t sell the unfiltered honey. They pasteurize and heavily filter it before bottling and selling it. One of the primary reasons for doing that is to prevent it from crystallizing on store shelves; after all, shoppers will be more likely to buy beautiful, golden honey in a liquid state than crunchy, solidified honey.
So buying “store” honey that’s been heavily processed is one way to avoid rapid crystallization. But it won’t contain the solid raw goodies, or most of the vitamins, minerals and beneficial enzymes (killed by the high heat of pasteurization), that make honey so healthy.
Honey With Lower Glucose Content
Since glucose is the sugar which falls out of solution and crystallizes, that implies that buying a type of honey with higher fructose and lower glucose content would mean slower crystallization.
That’s true, too.
Varieties like acacia and tupelo honey have relatively low glucose content compared to most types of honey, so they’re going to stay on the shelf much longer before they crystallize. On the other hand, varietals like clover and alfalfa honey contain more glucose than most other types, so they’re among the fastest types of honey to crystallize. Buying the “right” type of honey will minimize crystallization in the first place.
Buying tupelo honey may not be a solution (pardon the pun) that works for you, if you’re determined to buy supremely-healthy manuka honey even though it has a higher glucose content. But if the variety isn’t particularly important to you, checking the fructose/glucose content will let you purchase honey which will stay on the shelf for months or years without crystallizing.
Other Ways to Prevent Honey from Crystallizing
We’re going to resort to science again, but this won’t be hard to understand.
Crystallization occurs naturally, of course, but it can be triggered by overly-cool temperatures. Once honey is stored below 50° it will begin to form crystals. The lower the temperature, the faster honey turns solid. That doesn’t mean honey should be kept warm, though. As mentioned in our discussion of pasteurization, heat affects honey by killing beneficial ingredients; the taste and texture of honey will also be damaged as the temperature rises.
Bottom line: always store honey at room temperature to prevent rapid crystallization. The ideal temperature is somewhere between 55° and 60°. Needless to say, never keep it in the refrigerator.
There’s one more step to take. Store honey in an air-tight glass jar or bottle instead of in a plastic container, and keep it in a dark area. Those steps will prevent excess moisture from getting into your honey – and moisture can start the crystallization process.
You Can Decrystallize Honey
Crystallized honey is delicious when used as a spread on bread, sprinkled into yogurt or over fruit, or used in recipes (its consistency is easier to work with and solid honey has a richer taste).
But it’s easy to take crystallized honey and turn it back into the gooey, yummy liquid you expected when you opened the pantry to take out the honey jar. The process is called decrystallization.
Make sure the crystallized honey is in a glass jar (plastic won’t work for this purpose), and place it into a warm water bath, created by heating water in a pot on the stove. Stir the honey regularly, and within 30 minutes, you’ll have beautiful liquid honey again. (Don’t let the water bath get too hot. The high temperatures created by a hot water bath will damage the honey.)
Liquid honey is one of the most delicious substances nature has ever created, but crystallized honey tastes just as good. So don’t be afraid of the solid stuff you find in your honey jar; it’s still the same wonderful honey you originally bought.