Rather than accepting crystallized honey as a unique product, we waste a lot of effort trying to “fix” it. Some consumers actually dispose of solidified honey, believing it “turned” or became unsafe to eat. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, clumsy attempts to prevent crystallization, or to re-liquefy solid honey, can do more harm than good. That’s because heat is often the answer to hardened honey, but heat is honey’s worst enemy, causing a degradation in flavor, aroma, and nutritional content.
What causes honey to crystallize?
Crystallization is not a chemical change, but simply a physical reordering of the molecules. If you dissolve a bunch of sugar in warm water, suspend a string in the solution, and wait long enough, the sugar will form large hunking crystals along the string. As the water evaporates, the molecules of sugar line up in a way that forms these out-sized crystals that kids call “rock candy.”
The same thing happens when we granulate sugar, but the process is controlled to assure the crystals are the same size and shape. We don’t believe sugar has “gone bad” when it forms crystals, but somehow we think honey has gone bad when it does the same thing.
Ironically, people go out of their way to purchase “creamed” honey as a specialty product. Creamed honey is much like granulated sugar because the crystallization process is controlled to make the crystals small and uniform. Creamed honey, then, is nothing more than crystallized honey with a controlled crystal size.
How long before my honey will crystallize?
It is nearly impossible to predict when a sample of honey will crystallize. The rate of crystallization depends on the storage temperature, the presence of particles in the honey, and the composition of the honey. In turn, the composition of the honey depends on the plants it is made from.
Sugars come in many forms, but nectar from flowers is highest in fructose and glucose, although it may also contain sucrose and maltose. It is the relative amounts of fructose and glucose that control crystallization.
Whereas glucose granulates easily, fructose resists granulation, making fructose popular in food products where you want to maintain a smooth and silky consistency. Hard candy recipes such as those for lollipops often use fructose to obtain a non-grainy texture.
When honey has a high proportion of fructose compared to the amount of glucose, the honey may remain liquid for a very long time, even years. On the other hand, honey with a high amount of glucose and small amounts of fructose may granulate almost immediately.
Which honey is slow to crystallize?
When it comes to fast granulation, nothing beats oilseed rape (canola) for speed. Beekeepers wishing to extract oilseed rape honey must act quickly in order to extract the crop before it solidifies in the comb. Other honeys that granulate quickly are clover, lavender, dandelion, and alfalfa.
As a general rule, honey made from tree nectar is higher in fructose and slower to crystallize than honey made from forbs (non-grassy herbaceous flowering plants). Slow-to-crystallize honeys include tupelo, black locust, acacia, gallberry, maple, sourwood, and avocado. However, most honey is not limited to one type of nectar, so the speed of crystallization is almost impossible to predict.
How can I prevent crystallization?
Several things can be done to slow the rate of crystallization. For example, honey stored in a warm environment granulates more slowly than honey stored in a cold garage or shed. Freezing, however, can slow crystallization as long as the honey is wrapped tightly and kept from losing moisture.
Crystals need a particle or platform on which to start their growth. Impurities in the honey, such as pollen grains, can provide the perfect place for a crystal to start, which is one reason honey is often micro-filtered. The more particles that are removed, the longer the honey will stay liquid. However, the number of particulates is not nearly as important as the fructose content. A high-fructose honey can remain liquid for many years in spite of a high pollen count, so micro-filtration is more important in honey that has a reputation for quick crystallization.
Many people are opposed to micro-filtration because, after removing the pollen, the identity and source of the honey are hidden. Scientists use pollen for identification, so once the pollen is gone the geographical source is impossible to establish.
The downside of heating honey
The time-honored method of re-liquefying honey is to heat it. Almost any honey can be re-liquefied in this manner, but heat and honey don’t mix. Even small amounts of heat can destroy the delicate flavor and aroma components and increase the levels of hydroxymethylfurfural in the honey. Then too, the complex nutritional and medicinal components of honey can be neutralized with heat as well.
Honey liquefied by heat does not stay liquefied for long. As soon as the honey cools down and rests on a shelf for a few days, it will start to crystallize again. If it is then re-heated, it loses even more of its character. By limiting the number of times it is heated, you can minimize the damage.
Honey is often heated and re-liquefied by the beekeeper or distributor before it is sold; after all, the consumer wants liquid honey. In general, consumers prefer liquid honey regardless of whether it has been heated or not, so the seller ends up providing what the consumer wants, even if it’s not the best product.
But recently, a honey consumer said she purchased honey at her farmers’ market and it began crystallizing immediately. She wanted to know if that was a sure sign the honey was heated just before she purchased it. It’s a good question, but I don’t think you can say for sure. Maybe it was heated, but maybe it was just at the point that it was ready to crystallize. Honey is such a variable product, that it’s impossible to guess.
Accepting crystallized honey for what it is
For the consumer of honey, I think the problem is best solved by accepting crystallized honey for what it is. There are many ways you can use it without subjecting it to extra rounds of heating and re-crystallizing.
I have both kinds in my cupboard. If I’m going to heat the honey in a recipe, I just use crystallized honey. It dissolves during the heating process, but it is heated only once, not multiple times that would degrade it even further. The same applies to honey for tea: it will dissolve when you use it, so why heat it more than once?
Crystallized honey is perfect on hot biscuits or toast because it quickly liquefies yet doesn’t drip off your bread in the meantime. It can also be used on hot cereal, pancakes, and waffles. As beekeepers we are in a perfect position to dispel some of the unfortunate rumors that surround crystallized honey by explaining to purchasers what causes the crystallization and how to use it as is.
Honey Bee Suite