What It Is
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 a few of the more than 300 types of honey produced in the United States.
In addition to being irresistibly sweet, honey inhibits bacteria growth and contains disease-fighting antioxidants. Honey's 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 as a quick energizer. It can also be used as a dressing for 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 this case, pollen, the very same ingredient bees use to make their honey -- can desensitize the body. To try it out, eat 1 teaspoon daily of raw, unfiltered honey made within 20 miles of your home.
Because all types of honey can contain spores that very young bodies can't tolerate, it shouldn't be given to babies until after their first birthdays. For the rest of the family, however, it can be a valuable addition to the diet.
(CHECK OUT: More Buzzworthy Health Benefits of Honey)
What to Look For
Honey is available either raw or processed -- filtered to remove solids or heated to reduce crystallization -- and 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. Or honey may be sold in combination form as cut-comb honey, with chunks of honey-in-the-comb floating in jars of liquid honey. Creamed honey, also called whipped or spun honey, results from a carefully controlled process of crystallization. This leaves the honey lightened, slightly thickened, and ideally suited for spreading.
The processed liquid honey found in jars and plastic-bear dispensers on supermarket shelves are blends of several different types of honey, 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, through all 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.
Find different types of honey in the baking or jam aisle of most supermarkets or seek out local honey at farmers’ markets and roadside stands. Look for “100-percent pure honey” on the label; avoid those that list corn syrup or other additives.
How to Store
However the honey is processed, store it in an airtight container at room temperature (around 70 degrees) for up to two years. It is important to keep honey containers tightly capped; otherwise the hygroscopic (water-loving) sugars in the honey will absorb moisture from the air and lead to the growth of undesirable yeasts.
Honey may also crystallize and turn solid -- it hardens when the natural glucose (sugar) separates from the water. Sometimes this happens due to pollen in high-quality raw varieties, or after a change in humidity or temperature. There is no way to permanently reverse the effect, but if you need to measure the honey for a recipe, you can temporarily melt it by reheating it in a bowl of warm water. Otherwise, you can still safely eat it spread on toast, stirred into tea, dissolved into a marinade, or however you would normally enjoy it.
How to Cook
When cooking with honey, you can use any variety you have on hand with good results. But for the very best outcome, match the honey to the dish. In general, use mild honeys when you want no pronounced honey flavor; more assertive honeys when you want a more distinct honey presence; and highly aromatic honeys when you want the flavored honey to dominate the dish.
Some of our favorites:
Tupelo: Its creamy texture (the real stuff never granulates) and pear-like flavor make toast shine.
Chestnut: Aromatic and nuanced, it demands pride of place on the cheese board.
Eucalyptus: Bold, with a slightly astringent aftertaste, it adds an intriguing note to salad dressings.
Clover: 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. Drizzle honey over fresh fruit, like bananas, pears, or oranges, or onto ricotta cheese for a light dessert.
Honey also works beautifully in baked goods because it helps keep them moist longer than other sweeteners. 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. However, if you want to experiment, be sure to substitute honey for only about half the sugar in a recipe. Honey is about 20 percent sweeter than granulated sugar, so decrease the amount by about 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 about 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda. Lastly, it's a good idea to lower the oven temperature by about 25 degrees to compensate for honey’s more pronounced browning qualities.
(GET: Our Favorite Honey Recipes, From Sweet to Savory)