Crystallized Honey


The basics of crystallized honey

Have you found honey in your pantry that has suddenly turned cloudy and solid, hard, or even crunchy? Or maybe you’ve seen jars of opaque honey for sale and wondered about their appearance. This is a good sign—because this shows that the honey is authentic and unadulterated. The honey has crystallized or “set” as part of a natural chemical process involving the interaction of various components: sugar, water, and unfiltered pollen and bits of wax.            
Canada’s floral and arboreal landscape provides bees with an array of pollens and nectars that tend to trigger crystallization. While crystallization rates may vary, most honey will start to “set” anywhere from days to weeks to months after being harvested. It will gradually thicken, become creamy and look cloudy as part of this process. If the honey is stored in a cool place, crystallization may speed up. 
Once crystallization begins, you can still enjoy the honey, as its flavour and healthy nutritional compounds remain unchanged. In fact, honey’s evolving textures, from creamy to crunchy, can be adapted to new recipes and culinary uses. Avid honey consumers are encouraged to experiment with set honey as a resilient ingredient that can add intriguing textures to different foods. Crystalline honey can also be restored to its original liquid state with mild heat, should you prefer it that way. 

Why crystallized honey is a good thing

Honey is a dynamic and environmentally responsive substance that is affected by everything both in and around it--from botanical sources to regional and seasonal conditions. It expresses the flavours and textures of its specific landscape: different places, climates, flowers, plants, and trees shape how honey looks, tastes, and feels. Crystallization is part of this complex expression. 
Eating honey in all of its forms, from liquid to crystalline, becomes an intriguing and unique gourmand experience, especially when one compares honeys from different sources and areas. Honey connoisseurs are aware of the value and rarity of regionally specific honeys: they take the time to seek them out in various stages of crystallization at local shops, apiaries, and farmer’s markets, both at home and when they travel. 
Just as the froth or “crema” on espresso was once viewed negatively but is now seen as a mark of quality, crystallization in honey should be understood as a sign of authenticity and interest. 

What’s going on? How and why honey crystallizes

Honey taken from the hive is liquid but, over time, its chemical composition can alter its texture. It is supersaturated with sugars in relation to its water content and, as the sugars seek equilibrium with the moisture present in honey, it begins to crystallize. 
Several factors contribute to this process:
  1. Botanical origin: The glucose-fructose ratios of honey are determined by the trees, flowers, and plants available to honeybees in specific regions over the course of a season, with higher glucose levels leading to firmer crystallization. Canada’s landscape is dominated by plants rich in glucose, such as dandelion, buckwheat, canola, and goldenrod, which result in honeys that will solidify more quickly. Canola nectar is so glucose-intense that its honey sometimes hardens in the hive! If you are buying local honey in Ontario, you should expect it to crystallize relatively quickly. High fructose plants, like sourwood, tupelo, and locust, which are usually found in warmer climates, produce honey that will remain liquid for longer periods.   
  2. Pollen and wax: Although honey is strained or filtered to remove debris, in unfiltered or “raw” honey, some pollen remains, along with flecks of wax and propolis. These elements impart unique health benefits and flavour, but they also trigger the sugars in honey to react to and crystallize around them. 
  3. Moisture or water content: The ideal moisture level for honey is approximately between 15.5% and 18.6%. 17.8% is the Ontario standard for Grade One honey. While honey at lower moisture levels won’t ferment, it does thicken more firmly and rapidly. Higher moisture honey (above 20%) may stay liquid for longer, but as the sugars inevitably crystallize, they push out excess moisture, which can then lead to separation and fermentation. Exposing otherwise dry honey to air and storing it improperly can lead it absorb too much moisture as well, so it must be firmly sealed in storage.
  4. Degree of processing: Honey that has been heated and filtered to a high degree will crystallize more slowly than honey that has been less processed. While more highly processed and pasteurized honeys will have a longer liquid shelf life, heating and ultra-filtering can also reduce the honey’s botanical uniqueness and diminish its nutritional benefits. Honey that is strained (rather than filtered), minimally heated and that is unpasteurized is more likely to crystallize at a quicker rate.
  5. Temperature: Honey stored at cooler temperatures (at or below 10C-15C) will begin to harden. Storing honey someplace warmer (over 20C) slows the process. Freezing honey (at -20) while in its original liquid state, however, reduces the crystallization rate, and preserves clarity, health benefits and flavour until removed from the freezer. Over time, crystallized honey may develop white streaks when stored at cooler temperatures for long periods, marring its appearance through the jar. This is normal: the streaks are just more crystals forming as the honey contracts in reaction to the cold. Its flavour won’t be affected. Placing the jar in a sunny window, in a pot of warm water, or near a heater will help reduce or eliminate these streaks.
  6. Time: based on its origin and storage conditions, different honeys will set at different rates. Some will crystallize in mere days or weeks, others may take months or years, with higher fructose honeys staying liquid the longest. Time may also affect the texture: quick setting honeys tend be smoother and creamier with smaller crystals, while those that set slowly tend to be sugary, grainy or gritty, and more candy-like. 


How to enjoy crystalline honey: move beyond the drizzle!

Different degrees of crystallization can take honey beyond the basic liquid drip and drizzle to add new, more malleable textures to whatever you serve or sweeten with honey. Crystalline honey’s varying densities allow it to be scooped, dolloped, sliced, cut, or crumbled, making it a visually novel garnish and unique condiment. Serve it with cheese and fruit in chunks, or dollop it like butter onto  baked sweet potatoes or roast squash. Consider adding zest, spices, hot pepper, sea salt, chopped nuts or herbs to crystalline honey for added flavour combinations when pairing it with baked goods, fruit, roasted vegetables, or charcuterie and cheese boards.  
Like conventionally creamed honey, crystallized honey spreads more neatly on toast and muffins and is a firm and flavourful topping for fruit salad, plain yogurt, or hot cereal. Unlike runny honey, it won’t disappear into your oatmeal or dribble off of your bread.  Set honey still melts into hot tea and coffee, just like liquid honey. Its consistency can also be adjusted to suit your needs: warm it slightly to scoop or spread it; chill it to slice or crumble it. 
In Europe, “crunchy honey” is sought out for its unique mouthfeel and intense flavour.  It is time for Canadians to do the same! Enjoy a spoonful of creamy, caramel-like or dense honey and savour its unique combination of taste and texture, while imagining new culinary possibilities. Be creative and experiment with your crystalline honey and see what you come up with!

If you still prefer liquid honey, here’s what to do:

Freeze it or heat it! Store your fresh honey in the freezer to slow the crystallization process before it begins. Heat also softens and liquefies already crystallized honey: warm only what you need in a container placed in hot water, keeping it at or below 35C. Stir the warm honey gently to dissolve any crystals or until you get the texture you want. Heating crystallized honey in the microwave or putting a jar through a dishwasher cycle will liquefy it thoroughly and efficiently (be sure the lid is on tightly if using the dishwasher!), but sustained higher heats may affect its healthy properties. 
By E. Y. Pelletier