Our Comprehensive Guide to Honey: Here's How to Shop for and Use This Natural Sweetener

Plus, learn more about honey's health benefits—they'll make you that much more excited to cook and bake with it.

Jars of honey
Photo: Marcus Nillson

Honey is a natural sweetener that's used in and on everything from tea to toast. The ingredient can be found in both sweet and savory recipes alike—and is particularly perfect for anyone who wants to avoid refined sweeteners. It's also an ancient food: According to the National Honey Board, honey has been enjoyed by humans for over 8,000 years. Read on to discover everything you need to know about this sticky sweetener, from its myriad health benefits and multiple flavors to its best applications in all your culinary adventures.

What Is Honey?

Thick, syrupy honey is made by honeybees from flower nectar; its color and flavor are determined by the blooms the bees visit. Clover, alfalfa, wildflower, and tupelo are just a few of the more than 300 types of honey produced in the United States.

The Health Benefits of Honey

In addition to being irresistibly sweet, honey inhibits bacteria growth and contains disease-fighting antioxidants. Its reputation as a panacea is a subject of debate among scientists, but much contemporary research supports folk wisdom—that honey can serve as, among other things, a natural remedy for digestive problems or even as a quick energizer. It can also be used to dress wounds and burns, and as an ointment for many skin conditions. Some holistic practitioners even prescribe honey for allergies. The theory is that, as with allergy shots, daily exposure to a small amount of an allergen—in honey's case, pollen, the very same ingredient bees use to make the stuff—can desensitize the body. To test it out, eat one teaspoon daily of raw, unfiltered honey made within 20 miles of your home.

Honey, however, isn't for everyone: This sweetener often contains spores that very young bodies can't tolerate, so it shouldn't be given to babies until after their first birthdays. It's perfectly safe for the rest of the family, and can be an advantageous addition to their diets.

How to Shop for Honey

Honey is available either raw or processed—the latter is filtered to remove solids or heated to reduce crystallization—and comes in a variety of forms. In the U.S., honey is most commonly extracted from the comb and sold as a liquid. Another (more rustic) option is comb honey, a raw honey-filled section of the hive. Combination iterations also exist: Cut-comb honey involves chunks of honey-in-the-comb floating in jars of liquid. Creamed honey—which is also called whipped or spun—results from a carefully controlled process of crystallization. This leaves the sweetener lightened, slightly thickened, and suited for spreading.

As for how to identify the many types of honey as you shop? The processed liquid honey found in jars (and in those plastic-bear dispensers on your supermarket shelves) are typically blends of several different types, all of which have been superheated and filtered before being bottled. Single-flower honeys are created from the nectar of one type of flower, and the color—which may range from white to dark brown, passing through the many shades of gold and amber in between—provides a clue to its flavor. As a rule of thumb, light honeys are mild, amber honeys have richly mellow flavors, and dark honeys are more assertive. You'll find several styles of this sweetener in the baking or jam aisle of most grocery stores—or seek out local honey at farmers' markets and roadside stands. Look for "100-percent pure honey" on the label; avoid any that list corn syrup or other additives.

How to Cook with Honey

When cooking with honey, you can use any variety you have on hand with optimal results. But for the very best outcome, match the honey to the dish. In general, use mild honeys when you want to avoid a pronounced honey flavor; more assertive options when you want the ingredient's distinct presence; and highly aromatic flavors when you want the honey to dominate the dish.

Looking for specific honeys to cook with, plus their best applications? We have you covered.

  • Tupelo honey has a creamy texture (the real stuff never granulates) and its pear-like flavor makes toast shine.
  • Aromatic and nuanced, chestnut honey demands pride of place on the cheese board.
  • Eucalyptus honey is bold, with a slightly astringent aftertaste—it adds an intriguing note to salad dressings.
  • As for clover honey? Keep this neutral pantry staple on the table for last-minute enhancements.

And don't forget to think outside the teacup: Try adding honey to a marinade for pork tenderloin, chops, or ribs; use it to sweeten mustard or peanut butter for an easy dip; or drizzle it over fresh fruit, like bananas, pears, or oranges—or onto ricotta cheese for a light dessert.

How to Bake with Honey

Honey also works beautifully in baked goods; it helps keep them moist longer than other sweeteners. Substituting a lesser amount of honey for sugar, however, is tricky, so it's best to seek out recipes that are developed for honey rather than guessing at the proper proportions. However, if you want to experiment, our test kitchen team suggests substituting honey for only about half the sugar in a recipe (meaning, use both!). Honey is about 20 percent sweeter than granulated sugar, so decrease the halved amount by a fifth. For each cup of honey used, you also need to reduce the amount of other liquid in the recipe by 1/4 cup—and add a 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda, too. Lastly, it's a good idea to lower the oven temperature by about 25 degrees to compensate for honey's more pronounced browning qualities.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles