Honey bees (Apis mellifera) flit from flower to flower, packing pollen into packets in their back legs and collecting nectar in their mouths. A chemical reaction between the bee's saliva and the nectar begins the process of honey production, which continues after the bees deposit this combination into honeycomb cells inside the beehive. Many bees rapidly beating their wings inside the hive maintains a steady temperature while evaporating the nectar in the open comb. When the bees sense a moisture content less than 20% they cap the honey - ready for a long cold winter or for a beekeeper to harvest. The texture, color and flavor of honey is determined by the flower varieties the bees visit.
I have tried my hand at beekeeping for the past few years - overcoming some challenges such as severe winters, Varroa mites and newbie mistakes. Last summer we successfully harvested honey from 3 hives and this summer - thanks to a mild winter - all four hives produced a grand total of 39 pints of glorious amber sweetness. Now the challenge is, what to do with two years-worth of honey? Even after giving away pints and quarts of golden goodness, my larder remains well stocked. Even if you aren't a beekeeper or know anyone who keeps bees, you can use purchase honey to use in recipes that call for sugar or other sweeteners.
Let's start with a safety precaution. Many folks are interested in using honey in place of white sugar because honey undergoes minimal processing and is perceived to be healthier than sugar. Infants under the age of 1 year should not be given honey due to their underdeveloped gastrointestinal and immune systems. Honey is known to contain botulism spores which don't affect older children and adults but could cause severe illness if ingested by an infant.
Next, let's talk about varietal honeys. Perhaps you've seen honey labeled as orange blossom or clover…. How do beekeepers know where their bees that can travel up to 3 miles from the hive are collecting nectar? Unlike my home apiary where I label my honey as meadow wildflower, some professional beekeepers transport their hives around the country to pollinate various crops such as oranges and almonds. This is a win-win for both the farmer and the beekeeper. The bees pollinate the farmer's crops and the beekeeper can harvest a honey with unique characteristics based on the crop(s) they have pollinated.
Honey and white sugar both contain fructose and glucose but in different amounts and chemical bond structures. In sugar the fructose and glucose are bound together to form sucrose and is not broken down into its simpler components during digestion until it reaches the small intestines. In honey the sugars remain mostly independent of each other because of enzymes added by the bees and are broken down earlier in the digestion process. This difference means honey is more easily digested and absorbed and it ranks lower on the glycemic index at 55 +5 vs. 68 +5 for sugar. The glycemic index explains how fast various foods cause a rise in blood glucose levels. With a lower glycemic index, honey does not cause blood sugar to rise as rapidly as sugar. A teaspoon of honey has 69 calories compared to the 48 calories in a teaspoon of white sugar, because honey is denser and weighs more than equal amounts of sugar.
Honey does not spoil so it does not require refrigeration. Over time it may crystallize and solidify as the glucose molecules align themselves. Crystallization does not change the quality or nutritional content of the honey - it just makes it very hard to get out of the jar! Crystalized honey can be re-liquefied by immersing the container in a pan of hot water and stirring the contents.
To begin using honey in your baking, start with recipes written specifically for honey instead of sugar. The National Honey Board website www.honey.com has some great recipes. To replace sugar in a recipe with honey, start by substituting up to half the sugar with honey. For each cup of honey used to replace sugar, decrease the other recipe liquids by ¼ of a cup. In order to counteract the acidity in honey add ½ teaspoon of baking soda for each cup of honey used. Before measuring the honey, coat the inside of the measuring cup with a thin layer of vegetable oil or water to aid in pouring the honey from the cup. Honey can be substituted in equal measure for other liquid sweeteners such as sorghum, molasses or maple syrup. It is also recommended to decrease the oven temperature by 25 degrees as the honey tends to make your product brown (burn) at higher temperatures.
One pound of honey equals about 1 1/3 cups and a 3-pound container will hold about 4 cups of honey. In addition to baking with honey, it tastes great on toast, in oatmeal or a cup of tea and even soothes a sore throat.