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Mussing in the kitchen with honeycomb

Extracted honey can never hold a candle to honey in the comb. Imagine harvesting the choicest Zinfandel, Chianti, Syrah, and Merlot, then swirling them all together in a cavernous vat. The result is anemic red wine. The high notes and the low, the color, and the bouquet are all confused into an insipid muddle not memorable in the least. The word that comes to mind is “boring.”

This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 160 No 2, February 2020, pp. 157-161.

Likewise, centrifugal extractors meld honey produced from a variety of flowers, grown in diverse soils, and at different points in the season, into a tedious syrup. Extracted honey reminds me of vegetable soup from a can where the peas, carrots, and potatoes all taste alike except for their shape. If I want nondescript sweetness in a jar, why bother keeping bees?

Cell by cell

Comb honey, on the other hand, is a magical experience. Each individual cell is a unique flavor packet. The contents were harvested in a relatively short period of time — perhaps only a day — and often the nectar came from a single species, or nearly so. It doesn’t have the same flavor as the honey harvested ten days later, or twenty. Chances are it’s not the same honey that’s packed in the next super or even the next frame.

The only way to taste the nuanced tang of day-to-day production is to leave the honey in the comb until you’re ready to eat it. Savoring honey cell-by-cell and comparing the flavors of cells with different colors is a one-of-a kind adventure, experienced by very few in our modern world where maximum production is the gold standard.

No apologies

Yes, I am a comb honey fanatic and make no apologies for it. A shortage of great comb honey is the sole reason I became a beekeeper, and I have never — not once in my entire beekeeping career — put a single frame of my honey into an extractor. Centrifugal extractors not only mix the honey, but aerate it by flinging it through the air before it splats on the cylinder wall, accelerating oxidation and diminishing the flavor even more.

On the rare occasion when I want some extracted honey for a recipe, I mash some cells with a fork. When I want to sell honey in the comb, it disappears so fast it’s not worth setting up a table.

This beautiful comb honey was professionally produced and presented. All the cells are thin, the cappings are clean and white, and the cells are full. Photo © Phillip Cairns, Mudsong.org
This beautiful comb honey was professionally produced and presented. All the cells are thin, the cappings are clean and white, and the cells are full. Photo © Phillip Cairns, Mudsong.org

Honey in the kitchen

Oddly, beekeepers often dismiss comb honey before they start, thinking it is somehow difficult, complicated, or too much trouble. Worse, they don’t seem to know what to do with it in the kitchen. “How do I eat it?” is a common question. So today, I want to share some ideas for preparing and serving honeycomb. But before we go there, we need to talk about “the wad.”

If you ask around, people who have consumed comb honey usually focus on the wad, a dense, indigestible, flavorless glob that remains after the honey disappears. Either they love to chew on the wax like gum or they absolutely detest having the wad in their mouth. Now, listen carefully: If you end up with a wad, it is for one of two reasons. Either the comb was produced improperly or it was served incorrectly. Comb honey should never produce a wad. Done right, you should never even notice the comb.

What makes tender comb?

The best honeycomb is young and malleable. Beeswax has lots of volatile components when first secreted by bees, and these substances keep the wax soft. You’ve certainly noticed that new combs are bendy and tear easily, and only after time do they become hard and brittle. If you are going to eat the comb, it’s best in its soft and tender youth.

Because old wax gets stiff, comb honey should never be made with foundation. By definition, foundation is old wax. Even the super-thin stuff sold specifically for comb honey won’t prevent wads. Cut a honeycomb in two and look inside. The midrib, which forms the centerline between the two sides of a comb, should be just as thin as the hexagonal walls. It should be transparent, not white and thick.

A thick midrib caused by a sheet of foundation can be chewy and unpleasant.
A thick midrib caused by a sheet of foundation can be chewy and unpleasant. Photo © Rusty Burlew
Without foundation in the way, your bees will build a midrib that is transparent and tender.
Without foundation in the way, your bees will build a midrib that is transparent and tender. Photo © Rusty Burlew

Burr comb goodness

Some of the best honeycomb I’ve ever eaten was burr comb cut from rapidly expanding colonies. It may have been built between frames or inside an empty feeder rim. These are comb honey gold mines — built fast, filled quickly, and still pliant. Best of all, they contain no foundation.

When I prepare comb honey supers in spring, I use a starter strip in each frame. I simply take a piece of the super-thin foundation, cut it in narrow strips with a rotary cutter, and glue these into a frame with a bead of wax. The strips needn’t be very wide — about a half inch will do — because the bees will start building wherever you put it. I’ve done the same with wooden squares and Ross Rounds. Honey bees are smart and they quickly get the message: Start here↑.

Some of the best comb honey can be found in the form of burr comb. These pieces were built quickly, filled to capacity, and contain no foundation.
Some of the best comb honey can be found in the form of burr comb. These pieces were built quickly, filled to capacity, and contain no foundation. Photo © Rusty Burlew

The #1 rule for serving comb

So after you and your bees have produced ethereal comb with a see-through midrib, you still need to serve it properly. The key is pairing: You simply must serve comb honey with some other food. Eaten alone, even the most delicate comb will produce the wad to some extent. But eaten together with something else, you will never even realize the comb was there.

I’m not entirely sure why this works so well. Perhaps particles of wax stick to the food instead of each other, not sure, but whatever the reason, it works. After I’ve given away samples of comb honey at fairs and meetings, I always hear comments like, “This comb is different; it just disappears!” But it’s not different, it’s just that I serve the samples on crackers, crusty bread, apple slices, or pecans.

Of course, hot food makes the wax disappear, as well. Warm biscuits, pancakes, oatmeal, or toast melt and assimilate the wax, but warmth is by no means necessary. The accompanying food can be anything you like, but it must be there.

Honeycomb as restaurant fare

Probably the most popular way to serve honeycomb is with cheese on a cracker. This is especially popular in upscale restaurants, where it is often the centerpiece on a tray surrounded by assorted cheeses and a variety of whole-grain crackers. Believe me, the posh restaurants would not serve honeycomb at the table if they thought customers might spit in their napkins or chew like cows. Instead, they know this combination will go down like silk and make a favorable impression on the patrons.

The variety of cheeses that go well with honeycomb is surprising. You might think that milk gone moldy and blue wouldn’t be a good match, but honeycomb goes great with blue cheese, gorgonzola, stilton, and Roquefort. Back in 2011, Newfoundland beekeeper Phillip Cairns commented, “I put some cut comb honey on a cracker with some blue cheese yesterday and holy jumpin’ Moses, was that ever good. I did not expect that combination to work, but it was crazy with flavor, like nothing I’ve tasted before.”

Non-moldy types of cheese work, too. Hard cheeses such as gouda, cheddar, and Swiss taste great with honey, as well as soft varieties such as Chèvre, queso fresco, and feta. In addition, honey is better behaved in the comb than out, so it tends to sit upright on the cheese, making an attractive, glittery, non-messy presentation atop a cracker.

Another popular honeycomb-topped item in restaurants is salad. Tiny cubes of honeycomb go well on just about any green salad with any type of dressing. Simply build the salad and sprinkle the cubes over the top. I like to save thin combs for salad because they are easier to cut into cubes, but any size will do. The cubes lend a burst of flavor at unexpected times and complement many raw vegetables.

This green salad is topped with chunks of honeycomb and shaved cheese.
This green salad is topped with chunks of honeycomb and shaved cheese.

Honeycomb at home

Where I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, people kept a comb of honey on the table alongside salt, pepper, and a lump of butter. Honeycomb was most often eaten at breakfast, smeared atop hot buttered toast, the wax melting into the warm bread, the aroma mesmerizing the taste buds. Today, I do the same with English muffins, filling the little holes with butter and the sweet labor of bees. Other people prefer baguettes, biscuits, or scones, but it all tastes delicious.

For those who like pancakes or waffles, you can drop small chunks of comb directly into the batter, or sprinkle them over a stack in place of syrup. Some people like to drop cubes of honey into hot cereal, where they melt into little puddles of flavor. Yams and sweet potatoes, as well as winter squash and cooked carrots, can also benefit from a cube or two of honeycomb.

Sandwiches also provide a delicious showcase for your combs. Peanut butter and honeycomb on grainy bread, turkey sandwiches with mustard and honeycomb, and even grilled cheese and honeycomb, are flavorful diversions from the day-to-day standards. Don’t overdo it, though. For the best experience, think of honeycomb as a condiment instead of the main event.

As a snack, I like apple slices and honeycomb, celery and honeycomb, or pecans used like mini scoops. Other beekeepers have suggested honeycomb on brownies, graham crackers, and granola. The opportunities are endless.

Honeycomb and ice cream

Lots of folks like to serve ice cream with cubes of honeycomb as a topping. In fact, this is quite popular, and I’ve read dozens of references to it on the Internet. Trouble is, every single serving suggestion I could find said to use vanilla ice cream. But whatever for? Believe me, honeycomb goes great on just about any fruit ice cream, including strawberry, cherry, blackberry, peach, and raspberry. It also works with coffee ice cream, chocolate chip, and butter pecan. Vanilla is fine, but don’t think it’s your only choice.

In my zeal to expand the uses for honeycomb, I tried making ice cream with honeycomb chunks stirred in before the ice cream hardened. Sadly, this didn’t work. The comb froze into rocks that tasted like arctic gemstones and might have broken someone’s teeth. Apparently, the water in honey, although only about 20%, is sufficient to make ice cubes. When I tried to eat it, the ice cream disappeared, leaving only the frozen cube behind. By the time the cube was soft enough to chew, there was no food left to prevent the wad from forming — all in all, it was an unpleasant experience and an unfortunate waste of homemade ice cream. Sigh.

Chocolate-covered honeycomb

My most recent foray into cooking with honeycomb resulted in dark-chocolate covered honeycomb candies. I’ve spend years — literally — looking for a way to do this and found nothing. So I devised a recipe which does most of what I want, but not quite. When you bite into my chocolates, you get a squirt of honey, a hint of pecan, a crunch of flaky salt, and a chocolate finish. I give myself a grade of B+. An A would require a deeper chocolate flavor closer to the beginning.

The chocolate coating is the problem. I don’t have enough hours in a day for tempering chocolate, so I tried to take a shortcut modeled on the old-timey method of mixing chocolate with paraffin. Since I’m not about to eat paraffin, I substituted beeswax, figuring since there is beeswax in the honeycomb, a little extra in the chocolate wouldn’t hurt.

The beeswax worked like it was supposed to, keeping the chocolate solid at a higher temperature — which makes it easier to handle — and forming an attractive, glossy coating. But the downside is that when you increase the melting point of chocolate above body temperature, it loses some of its melt-in-your mouth lusciousness simply because it no longer melts in your mouth.

Regardless of being merely “interesting,” these chocolate treats disappeared in a hurry.
Regardless of being merely “interesting,” these chocolate treats disappeared in a hurry.

Temperature problems

For the coating, I used 1 part beeswax to 10 parts of bittersweet chocolate, based on some coating recipes that use paraffin. Next time, I will reduce the beeswax to 1 part in 15. The problem, as I see it, comes from the melting points. Whereas chocolate melts at 86-90° F and food-grade paraffin melts at 99° F, beeswax doesn’t melt until 144° F. Lowering the ratio of beeswax should lower the melting point of the final product, but who knows? Food science is not my forte.

At any rate, I cut cubes of honeycomb, let them drain on a cooling rack, and then dipped them in the partially cooled coating — partially cooled so the honeycomb wouldn’t melt. Then I topped each one with a pecan (to prevent the wad), sprinkled them lightly with sea salt, and let them cool on a rack.

My husband says they are “interesting,” which is not an overwhelming compliment. He likes the taste and texture of the honey and the nut, but wishes the chocolate flavor was more pronounced. My sentiments exactly, so back to the kitchen I go.

Start with one frame

I encourage every beekeeper to experiment with comb honey. After all, ethereal honeycomb is unavailable to most people, but beekeepers are privy to all the fun.

If you don’t feel up to dedicating a whole super to honeycomb, just replace one frame in one honey super with a foundationless frame. If you add a bead of wax as a starter and sandwich the foundationless frame between two frames of drawn comb or two frames of foundation, you should get a nice straight and tender honeycomb to play with in the kitchen.

And don’t forget: When you get this chocolate thing worked out, please let me know.

Here you can see a narrow starter strip in the frame where the bees have started a new white comb. Photo © Phillip Cairns, Mudsong.org
Here you can see a narrow starter strip in the frame where the bees have started a new white comb. Photo © Phillip Cairns, Mudsong.org

Acknowledgement

Special thanks to Phillip Cairns at Mudsong.org for his excellent photographs. Without a doubt, Phillip produces some of the best comb honey in North America.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Comments

Granny Roberta in nw CT
Reply

As you recall, we are “pistols at dawn” over the desirability of chewing beeswax. (mmmmm beeswax)

But you are so completely right about everything else. I always try to remember to tell people to eat the comb honey with something chewy, which I learned from you. Thank you. And as for the burr comb, the only problem is, when I encounter burr comb I tend to be wearing a veil. Drat.

But I remember once stuffing burrcombfuls (pretty sure that ‘word’ will stab you in the linguistics) of the most delicious warm liquid sunshine in my mouth (no doubt as the result of some beekeeping beespace screwup) till I started to maybe think I’d had too much of a good thing. I’m pretty sure the only thing that saved me from drastic long-term effects was that the filling was more nectar than honey.

vince poulin
Reply

Rusty – You are so correct. This spring our hives exploded. So much so we have an abundance of early, spring honey. This sounds crazy but no other family member enjoys honey comb. I can’t explain it but likely due to that mid-rib wax that feels more like gum than butter. Because I’m the only one who enjoys comb I’ve had to “extract” our honey. Not mechanically but by placing recently capped comb over a basin and removing the cappings with a filet knife and allowing it to drain by gravity. I’m sure you’ve done this but others possibly not. I try to leave 1/2 cell height on the comb for a few reasons. It leaves the foundation and lots of starter comb for the bees to re-work quickly. With all the retained honey bees jump back on the frames immediately rebuilding cells. In the past I did a cut and crush thing which was labour intensive and produced a great deal of unused wax. What I’m doing is not as special as your comb dedication but it lets us enjoy all the benefits of weekly honey extraction over the season. I’ve been removing frames once 90-100% capped. I don’t mind the slightly lower sugar content on the odd bit of comb that hasn’t been completely capped. I think – it gives an amazing fresh almost “nectar” taste to the honey. By taking just a few frames at a time – we get to enjoy the “vintage”. Literally the “tasting of the week”.

Carol
Reply

Oh my God, right after I write this, I am going to fix myself a piece of toast with butter and a piece of honeycomb I collected last year. After that, I’m going to prepare a frame for each of my hives with supers so I can get more. I never thought of the way each bit of comb is unique based on the flowers the bees went to that day. What a special bit of food honeycomb is. I think this is my new hobby now.

Amanda Robertson
Reply

Fabulous article! Thank you! Going to do this with my next box added. I was just thinking last week how to go about creating some good comb to eat. Thank you!

Ryan Lindell
Reply

THIS! This is what I want to do eventually! I just got my first nuc on Friday and this is one of the so many reasons I wanted to start beekeeping. I had some comb in honey when I was young and to me, it was the best thing I ever had. Thanks for the info!

Dave Loucky
Reply

Thanks for this Rusty. As always you inspire us and return us to some important basics. Last season we produced a few frames of comb honey and loved it. This year we’re hungry for more and are set up for it!

Gary K Olympia WA
Reply

And there you have it in the nutshell! For all their unique management challenges, top bar hives are ideal for comb honey in jars! Sort of, once you get the handling of something that is frame-less figured out-we’re still working on that one!

Cal
Reply

Would freezing the honeycomb chunks before dipping them in your chocolate coating work to increase the chocolate flavor by making the coating thicker? Should lessen concerns about melting the honeycomb with your coating also. Don’t know – just throwing ideas out there.

Rusty
Reply

Cal,

Hmm. Interesting thought. Sounds like it’s worth a try.

Lynne
Reply

Perhaps after dipping in the chocolate, you could put them in the freezer for a few minutes to chill and then dip again before sprinkling with sea salt and topping with pecan.

Rusty
Reply

Lynne,

You’re the second person to mention freezing…why didn’t I think of that? I think further experimentation is in order. Such hardship…

Kathryn
Reply

Hi! Love your newsletter! I love comb too! My mom was of English descent and we had honey comb a few times spread on toast. Can I put in one empty frame in my ten frame to get enough for me? (My family thinks it yucky…weird..right?) How do you store it? Do you figure any shelf life? Over time does the wax age?

Rusty
Reply

Kathryn,

Yes, you can put one foundationless frame a regular honey super. Just remember to use a starter strip for better (straighter) results. I have comb honey that is over 5 years old, and it’s still fine. It actually seems to keep better in the natural comb than it does in a jar because it is less likely to crystallize. Of course, crystallization depends on what nectar was used, so it can vary quite a bit.

SUZi
Reply

Thank you for sharing the story about comb honey.
I will set up a super specifically for this purpose and treat my friends and family to a new delicacy from my hives this year!

Erik Brown
Reply

A great post as always, Rusty. For your chocolate experimentation, I wonder if liquid nitrogen would help. Not that I would recommend trying it, but I believe liquid nitrogen is used to make M&Ms (you know, melts in your mouth…). It alters the melting point or composition of chocolate (or something, I don’t exactly recall). In any case, getting liquid nitrogen is difficult and safety is a big issue, but otherwise it would be interesting!

Rusty
Reply

Sounds interesting, but I think I’ll pass.

Adam
Reply

How do you store your honeycomb? That’s the main thing holding us back from eating more.

Rusty
Reply

Adam,

I put the combs in a glass food storage jar and keep in in a cupboard.

Robert
Reply

Rusty, how do you store the comb honey? I have comb honey and I’m not sure the best approach to storage. I have two frames cut out in a Tupperware glass tray. Some I cut out and put in jars with honey, but I’m mostly doing crush and strain. Thanks in advance. Very timely article.

Rusty
Reply

I just cut it from the frame and put it in glass storage jars. If I don’t have enough jars, I simply wrap the frame in plastic and store the frames in a cardboard box.

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