A well-stocked pantry contains all sorts of ingredients that are only used once in a while. Home cooks find it comforting to know that even if cream of tartar, anchovy paste or soba noodles sit on the shelf for quite a while, they won’t have to run out to the store when trying a new and exciting recipes.
What’s really disheartening, though, is when you reach into the pantry for an ingredient you really need – and find out that it’s gone bad.
You say you’re familiar with that feeling, because you’ve had to toss a honey after it had solidified?
Sorry to break it to you, but you threw away some perfectly good honey, because honey crystallizes normally. In fact, the crystallization of honey can even occur before it’s removed from the hive.
Crystallized honey hasn’t gone bad. It’s simply changed its natural state and can easily be changed back into the gooey, yummy liquid honey you were expecting when you went into the pantry. It’s also a terrific ingredient in its crystallized form; you just have to use it a bit differently.
Why Does Honey Crystallize?
There are lots of trace elements in honey, but it primarily contains two ingredients: sugars and water. About 70% of honey is sugars (glucose and fructose), and less than twenty percent is water. They form what’s called a “supersaturated” solution, meaning there’s not enough water for all of the sugar to remain dissolved indefinitely under normal circumstances. Over time, some of the sugars will come out of the solution, appearing in your honey jar as crystals.
How quickly does honey crystallize? It happens at different rates depending on the type of honey you have; some will crystallize faster than others, based on the amounts of glucose and fructose they contain. Fructose usually stays dissolved in water, so the more fructose your honey contains, the more time the crystallization process will take. That’s why Tupelo honey, composed primarily of fructose, stays in a liquid state much longer. If your honey has a lot more glucose (clover and alfalfa are good examples) you’ll see it crystallizing more quickly.
Honey that’s very high in glucose can crystallize so quickly that the size of the crystals is quite small and the crystals are very smooth. That product is called creamed honey, and it’s delicious when used as a spread on bread and toast.
Why it’s a Good Thing That Honey Turns Into Crystals
You may find it annoying to have to deal with crystallized honey, but maybe this will help: the glucose crystallizing is actually a sign that you’ve purchased high-quality honey.
A lot of the honey sold in supermarket chains has been filtered to remove its natural pollen, giving the honey that beautiful, bright color – and also ensuring that it stays liquid and stable on the shelf until it’s sold. Unfiltered honey doesn’t look quite as clear or golden, and you can often see the pollen grains in it.
Fresh, raw honey typically contains lots of pollen (and propolis, the substance bees make to create their hives); that’s a sign that you’ve bought really good honey. But the small particles cause the crystallization process to start more quickly because they become the base of the crystals, giving glucose “something to latch onto” as it starts to emerge from its dissolved state.
So finding crystallized honey in your pantry, in reality, confirms that you’ve got the “good stuff.” But what do you do with it next?
How to De-Crystallize Honey
It’s simple to turn your “solid” honey back into the gooey stuff, by putting the jar into a warm water bath and heating it until the crystals dissolve. You just have to do it slowly and carefully.
- Make sure the warm water doesn’t go more than halfway up the outside of the honey jar.
- Heat glass jars, not plastic jars. If your honey is in a plastic bottle, transfer it before heating it.
- Heat the jar with the lid off, not on, and stir every few minutes.
- Don’t use hot water, which will break down the honey’s nutrients, and never use the microwave.
- Heat small batches at a time.
Once the honey is runny again, dry and cover the jar and store it properly.
How to Prevent Honey from Crystallizing
Since crystallization is a natural process, you can’t completely prevent most honey from eventually forming crystals. You can definitely slow the process down, however.
- If you’re bottling your own natural honey, keep the temperature steady with just a quick heat blast at the end to break up any air bubbles or nascent crystals.
- Store your honey in water-safe, air-tight containers until use.
- Store honey at or just below room temperature, between 50-70°F. Hotter temperatures will damage the honey, and cooler ones will cause it to crystallize more quickly.
Ideas for Crystallized Honey
When you find that your honey has crystallized, don’t rush to heat it back up immediately. You may find that you love the taste and texture of the crystallized stuff as well, because it still tastes like honey but has the consistency of tiny rock candy pieces.
Many people have found that adding crystallized honey to their tea is the best way to sweeten it, because they gain the health benefits of substituting honey for sugar without dealing with the drips and mess. It can be spread on toast, mixed into yogurt as a delicious and crunchy change of pace, or used for a quick energy boost when you eat it as a snack. Crystallized honey can be used as a substitute for raw honey when baking, or placed into the middle of cupcakes or muffins before baking to provide a sweet surprise for your guests.
And beekeepers have even found that their bees are happy to eat crystallized honey as a part of their diet. That’s what they do naturally, during the depth of winter when they’re stuck in their hives; they use their saliva to heat honey crystals and turn it into raw honey for nutrition.