Long before there was sugar, there was honey. The result of a symbiotic relationship between certain nectar-producing blooms and the insects that pollinate them, this enticingly sweet, perfumed liquid began to evolve with flowers and bees some 50 million years ago. By comparison, sugar is, at 9,000 years old, a newborn babe.
Humans have long braved bee stings to collect the precious substance that came to be known, justly, as the nectar of the gods. Ancient Egyptians revered it, securing the coveted offering for their deities. And honey still plays a pivotal part in Rosh Hashanah, symbolizing sweet things to come in the new year.
Bakers in particular are blessed, thrice, by honey. Unlike more straightforward sweeteners, honey has a flavor profile that varies dramatically depending on the nectar's source, adding delicate, lingering floral notes or a darker, richer molasses-like flavor to whatever it touches. Its dulcet overtones not only alter the personality of a dessert, they taste sweeter and more intense than sugar, which means recipes tend to require less of it. And, fortuitously, honey attracts moisture, ensuring that a baker's creation lasts longer -- provided there's any left.
Caring for Your Honey
Many cooks prefer honey that is raw -- as close to its pure state as possible. The only processing it endures is straining, which removes stray pieces of wax but retains the beneficial enzymes and pollen. The result tends to be slightly cloudy.
However the honey is processed, store it at room temperature for up to two years. If it no longer flows freely, place the bottle in warm water; the gentle heat will return the honey to a liquid state.
Substituting a lesser amount of honey for sugar is tricky. It's best to seek out recipes that are developed for honey rather than guessing at the proper proportions. Its thick stickiness can be delightful -- until it comes to measuring it. A thin film of oil on a measuring spoon or cup will ensure it flows with ease.
The flavor profile of various honeys, like their palette, varies from mild and delicate to seductively rich and intense.
Arresting appearance and pleasantly chewy, waxy texture.
2. Hawaiian White
Off-white hue, buttery texture, mild flavor with a hint of vanilla.
Rare Italian variety with a complex woodsy color, taste, and aroma and a slightly bitter aftertaste.
4. Acacia Pale
Intensely sweet, mellower than most.
Reminiscent of molasses, but less bitter and slightly smoky.
6. Scottish Heather
7. Tasmanian Leatherwood
Creamy, spicy, and floral.
8. Orange Blossom
Lingering citrus and floral notes.
Text by Fran Gage
Fran Gage is a bakery owner turned food writer.