Honey, Cooking, and The Science Behind The Sweet

A.V. Walters

Honey is a foodstuff of almost mythical proportions. It is one of a handful of foods that, left in its original form, never spoils. Honey has been known to last literally thousands of years—and still be edible and sweet. Honey will crystalize—a condition that may put off the uninformed consumer—but crystalized honey is still good. If it offends, you can simply warm it gently and it will resume its liquid amber loveliness.

Honey has three characteristics that, acting together, serve as its natural preservative. Despite being a liquid, honey has a very low water content of only 14 to 18 %. Bees will not “cap” honey in the comb until it has reached this low moisture threshold. Most bacteria cannot survive in such a low-moisture environment. Honey is also highly acidic, with a pH between 3.0 and 4.5. That acidity will kill off the few remaining things that might want to grow there. And, as we all know, honey is sweet. That natural sweetness also discourages bacterial growth. Archeologists have found sealed honey in ancient Egyptian tombs that was still preserved and unspoiled. Add to these three basic characteristics are the enzymes in honey that come from the bees’ stomachs. These enzymes combine with nectar sugars to produce gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide—natural components of honey. Blended together all these characteristics make a super-food that keeps, nearly indefinitely.

Herbalists and healers of ancient times understood these qualities in honey. It was widely used to treat wounds, for skin ointments and to prevent infections. To retain its natural preservative qualities though, stored honey must be sealed. Because honey is hygroscopic (naturally low in water) it will absorb liquid from the air and eventually spoil if left uncovered. Though honey is naturally pure, it can contain trace amounts of bacteria, and while this is not a problem for healthy children and adults, raw honey is not recommended for infants or people with compromised immune systems.

What about cooked honey? Cooking honey poses two questions: Does cooking undermine honey’s otherwise beneficial qualities? And, is it actually toxic? Purists and practitioners of natural or ayurvedic medicine will tell you that cooked honey is poisonous, and should never be eaten. There’s a smidgeon of science that supports that position, technically, but most feel that’s a little extreme. At the end of the day, this is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. Honey is essentially a natural, supersaturated sugar solution. Added into that are enzymes, courtesy of our friends, the bees. Many of the purported health benefits of honey are connected to those enzymes. But, when you heat honey, the enzymes begin to break down, beginning at about 118 degrees, Fahrenheit. Over-heating may result in losing most of the beneficial properties, making honey just another sweetener. (A good reason to gently heat your crystalized honey. You can warm it in a bath of warm tap water or in a double-boiler, at very low heat, to protect its enzymes.) In cooking, you can preserve honey’s integrity by adjusting how and when you heat it. Whenever possible, wait and add the honey until later in the cooking process (this is especially true when sweetening sauces or glazes.) Or, you can also “dilute” any heated honey mixture with a larger quantity of unheated ingredients. Check your recipes to see if there might be ways to limit exposure to high temperatures. Needless to say, honey is always at its best when used in recipes that are never heated, like salad dressings, toppings, dips or icings.

But, is it toxic? When honey is heated, its fructose, in combination with its natural acidity, degrades and begins to form hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), which is mildly toxic. The hotter it gets, the more HMF forms. The solution is dilution. Diluting the honey with other ingredients, (prior to heating) lowers the acid level of the honey, helping to prevent HMF formation. Even then, the actual HMF toxicity levels that result from normal cooking are very low. Our evolved human gut is fully capable of digesting cooked honey products, with no observable adverse affects. If you are a purist—don’t heat your honey. Otherwise, take reasonable efforts to preserve the maximum beneficial effects by keeping honey temperatures as low as practical. You can cook and bake with confidence, knowing that you are not putting yourself at risk.

There is one group that should never consume heated honey. That is your BEES! Bee guts and intestinal systems are relatively simple and cannot safely digest HMFs. Ingesting even a small amount of honey that has been heated can result in bees developing gut ulcerations. Many beekeepers use heat to separate wax from honey—and feed the resulting honey back to the bees. Don’t do it! Only give bees cold-processed, unadulterated, honey. Even adding water to honey, for bee feeding, must be done carefully because once water is added, the honey mixture is subject to bacterial spoilage, and fermentation. (Think mead!) If you use watered-down honey for bee feeding, make sure that it remains fresh. Remove any unconsumed honey blends within a day or so, replace with a fresh mixture, and periodically clean containers.

The very characteristics that give honey its extended shelf life can require some adjustments when cooking or baking with it. The most obvious is that honey is a liquid, so when substituted for sugar, you must adjust the balance of dry and wet ingredients to retain the desired texture. Every cup of honey used as sweetener contains about three extra tablespoons of liquid. So, you must reduce the other liquids in your recipe, increase the dry ingredients, or a combination of both. (The approach you take will depend on the recipe.)

It is often assumed that you can do a “cup for cup” substitution of honey for a recipe’s sweetener. Not so. In addition to increased moisture content, honey is sweeter than sugar when measured cup for cup. Depending upon the bees food source, and the seasonal time of production, honey can be anywhere from 1.25 to 1.5 times as sweet as sugar. You’ll have to substitute accordingly, and remember to taste as you go. Honey has a lower glycemic index rating than sugar (55 compared to sugar’s 61) so it’s a healthier option, with a slower impact on blood sugar. It’s easier to standardize baking with lighter honeys—the darker honeys come laden with their own native flavors. They can add depth and character to your baked goods, but darker honeys are a shifting exercise in taste exploration. Since the sugars in honey brown faster than regular sugar, you might have to lower your baking temperature by 25 degrees and cook your baked goods a little longer. Even if all your adjustments are correct, remember that baked goods made with honey are moister than sugar baking. If you’re looking for a drier finish—carefully bake longer, at a lower temperature.

Finally, honey’s natural acidity can play havoc with the leavening in baked goods. Most leavening agents (baking soda/baking powder) are “base” ingredients. The higher acidity in honey can act to neutralize your leavening agent—leaving an unadjusted recipe as heavy as a brick! You will need more leavening to achieve a proper rise, usually an additional 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoonful per cup of honey sweetening. There is no need to adjust if you’re using yeast. Yeast usually does well in the more acidic environment of honey. Add the honey to the bread dough mix, itself, to avoid interference with yeast performance. Do not “proof” your yeast in a honey mixture.

Honey as a food product has been with us for thousands of years. Whether you revere it for its mystical healing properties, or enjoy it as a healthy sweetener, it’s helpful to know how it behaves in cooking and baking. Following these tips, along with a little experimentation, will yield light and tasty results.