Far from it! In fact, honeys that crystallize more easily tend to be the least processed.
Some people (like me) enjoy the texture of crystallized honey – it melts more slowly in the mouth and its more solid structure can make it easier to pair with cheese. I especially like crystallized, creamier honeys, like Lo Brusc Montagne or Ames Farms Buckwheat. In my experience, the crystals in these honeys are small and give their naturally creamy texture a little more body, perfect when spread on toast or just by the spoonful.
Of course, the truth is that not everyone wants sugar crystals in their honey, and the good news is that honey crystallization is easy to reverse. If you want to return your honey to a more liquid state, simply put the jar in a pot, filling the pot with water until it comes about half to three-quarters of the way up the side of the jar. Simmer for a few minutes, and you’ll notice that the crystals start to disappear, and the honey will return to its original, liquid state.
But why does honey crystallize? The short answer is precipitation. Honey is an extremely concentrated sugar solution, and honeybees go to a lot of effort to make it that way. In turning plant nectar into a compact, storable food source, honeybees produce a liquid with an average ratio of 70% sugar to less than 20% water. By forcing this much sugar into solution the bees optimize their storage space, but they also over-saturate the liquid, making it pretty easy for some of this sugar to fall out and start forming solid sugar crystals. Adding energy (for example, heat) can help a liquid hold more material in solution, but it’s only a temporary fix.
Temperature isn’t the only factor in honey crystallization. Crystallization tends to be catalyzed by adding something that will start collecting molecules to form crystals (if you’ve ever made rock candy, you’ll know what I’m talking about). This is why I said that crystallized honey is often the least processed. When bees make honey, they inadvertently transfer small amounts of pollen, wax, propolis, and even air bubbles, into the solution, all of which can collect sugar molecules around them and start forming crystals. Processing honey usually involves heating it to dissolve any existing crystals and also filtering it to remove these impurities, making it more likely to stay liquid longer.
In addition, honey is primarily made up of two different types of sugar molecules – fructose and glucose, each of which interact differently with water. Fructose is much more soluble than glucose, so it stays dissolved in water longer. That means that honey with more glucose crystallizes faster. The ratio of these sugars depends entirely on the flowers that bees collect nectar from, meaning something any honey lover can tell you intuitively: different flowers result in honey with very different physical qualities. If you don’t like honey crystals, I’d buy Tupelo honey. It is almost entirely made up of fructose, making it among the slowest honeys to crystallize.
Of course, if crystallized honey isn’t bad, then the real question here is — does honey ever go bad?
Not really. In fact, honey has historically been counted among one of nature’s great antibiotics. Between its pH (around 3.26 to 4.48), which weakens bacterial cell walls, and its low water content, honey actually sucks the life (or at least the water) out of bacteria that come in contact with it. Honey’s high sugar content also helps prevent the growth of other microorganisms, such as fungal spores and yeast, so there’s not much to worry about with spoilage. The only real danger comes from exposure to water. Improperly harvested honey (which can have a higher water content), diluted honey, or honey collected in extreme humidity can begin to ferment after too long; however, testing if your honey has fermented is easy– the smell of alcohol and vinegar will be hard to miss.
In short, as long as you don’t dilute it with water, honey should last as long as you need it (I personally still use honey collected over 10 years ago, when my parents kept their own bees).
Now that’s pretty sweet!
Rob Campbell is a culinary adventurer, world traveler, science geek, and also the assistant tea buyer at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.