Honey flavors and textures vary based on the bee’s source of nectar. Nectar from different flowers can yield dramatically different honeys. We are lucky to work with a number of domestic and international honey producers who bottle wonderful multifloral honeys as well as single source or varietal honeys. With so many choices, how do you know which honey is best in your morning tea, best drizzled on scones, or best with a chunk of blue cheese?
Start out with your own preferences. For example, do you want something liquid or crystallized? Would you like the flavors to be mild or strong? This guide gives you just enough detail to help you make a more informed choice when buying your honey.
In general, honeys with lighter color have lighter tastes and aromas, while darker honeys have deeper flavors and stronger aromas. Particularly in the realm of varietal honeys, there are exceptions. For example, dandelion honey is a light-colored honey with a particularly strong aroma and a forthright taste.
All raw, unprocessed honey will crystallize over time. Some crystallize more quickly over a period of a few months after bottling, while others will stay liquid for more than a year after bottling. Tilleul or basswood honey typically crystallizes quickly while acacia keeps its golden liquid consistency for much longer. Tupelo and Chestnut honeys stay liquid for up to a year or more and Melata, for even longer. The amount of time it takes for a honey to crystallize depends on a number of factors including the nectar source and the corresponding sugar composition of the honey (glucose and fructose) as well as the method of storage and how old the honey is.
Crystallized honey can take a while to get used to especially if the crystals are large and crunchy. Some can have very fine crystals which give the crystallized honey a very smooth texture that can be spread like butter. If you prefer liquid honey, you can liquefy crystallized honey by warming it up in a water bath or storing it in a warm spot for a day or two. Otherwise, get a sturdy knife and spread a bit of the crystallized honey on a piece of hot toast or stir it into a steaming cup of tea.
Pairing Honey with Cheese
A sweet drizzle of honey makes for a perfect contrast with the saltiness of cheese. Matching the right cheese with the right honey is a simple way to elevate any cheese plate. But remember, honey is meant to complement, rather than overpower a cheese, so use it sparingly.
- Blue Cheese: Honey will cut the natural piquancy and acidic profile of blues. The clean flavors of alfalfa, acacia and tupelo are great complements to a blue cheese’s natural bite.
- Washed-Rind or “Stinky” Cheeses: Like blues, these cheeses tend to be strong and salty, a perfect match for a wildflower honey or something a little gamey like dandelion.
- Harder Cow’s Milk Cheese: The nutty, earthy notes in cheeses like Gruyère, Comté and cheddar pair well with more flavorful honeys like buckwheat and chestnut.
- Softer Cheese: Bloomy-rind cheeses like Camembert and Brie pair well with light, yet earthy honeys, like basswood or acacia.
- Goat’s Milk Cheese: The natural tanginess in goat cheese pairs well with delicate and bright honeys, like tupelo and lavender.
- Sheep’s Milk Cheese (Pecorino): The salty nature of sheep’s milk cheese is a nicely contrast to a buttery honey, such as sourwood or fireweed.
Honey is a natural product that can be collected and processed in a variety of ways. Honeys most natural state is in the comb. Honey in the comb makes for an attractive presentation but it is not always the most practical. To get honey out of the comb, a beekeeper cuts the wax caps off and spins the comb in a centrifuge to release the honey.
Once out of the comb, the honey is liquid and raw. Large processors micro-filter and heat treat their honey to extend its shelf life in a liquid state. This heat treatment kills many of the delicate flavors, aromas and nutritional benefits of the honey. Producers who prefer to sell raw, unprocessed honey, frequently use a coarse filter only to remove any bee or pollen bits that might be floating around in their tubs of honey. While they won’t heat treat their honey, they frequently warm the honey gently during bottling to make it flow more readily. This warming is typically kept below 100F but some consider even this moderate warming a form of heat treatment and no longer consider that honey truly raw.
Storing your honey
Honey can store quite well for a long period of time. There are stories of honey being excavated from Etruscan tombs and still tasting delicious. The honey will likely crystallize and the aromas and flavors will change with time, but it will still be a delicious sweetener. The only caveat is that some honeys can have a high moisture content (usually those that are harvested in very humid environments) and these honeys can begin to ferment over time. This fermentation is definitely the exception and most honeys can be kept for several years or more.