• February 26, 2024

What Even Is Honey? | Bon Appétit

(If you’re wondering what the male bees are up to, they only exist to do with the queen. “Once they mate,” she writes Stephen L. Buchmann in the Letters from the Beehive: An Intimate Story of Bees, Honey, and Humanity, “The males fall paralyzed and dying from the queen to the ground.”)

Where can I buy good honey?

The best thing to do is to find local or regional honey at your market. The mass produced stuff is usually a cooked (pasteurized) mix of hundreds of different honeys and nowhere near as tasty.

What should I look out for (or avoid) on the label?

One ingredient is usually listed in honey jars: honey. But that doesn’t tell you much about what you’re getting. Here’s how to decipher a few other words you might come across:


This is an unregulated term that refers to honey that either comes straight from the honeycomb or has minimal heating. It can be cloudy (a sign that it hasn’t been over processed) and contains many of the enzymes that are good for you. Because it’s precious and expensive, save raw honey when you can taste it front and center: on peanut butter toast, drizzled a pound of cake, by the spoon before a run. You might notice hints of hay or notes of apricot, things like that. Use inexpensive clear and liquid honey when cooking or baking.


Another unregulated term. This generally means that the honey has been contaminated to filter out dead bees (RIP) and / or their wings, but not enough to remove other smaller, perfectly edible particles. Between you and me, it’s mostly a marketing term to make people feel like they’re getting a purer product.


It turns out that organic honey is extremely difficult to make. (THEY try to tell the bees to pollinate only organically grown bushes.) Currently, most of the organic honey comes from Brazil, Mexico, and Hawaii.


Run away! This is syrup made with fake sweetener. It’s intended for those on a sugar-free diet, but the filler’s mysterious ingredients make it suspect to everyone.

What determines how honey tastes?

The natural taste of honey depends on what and where bees pollinate. (This is different from “flavored honey,” which is honey that is mixed with additional flavors like blueberries.) Some common varieties are:

  • Wildflower and clover: These common honeys have a mild sweetness
  • Buckwheat: dark, earthy, nutty and molasses-like
  • lavender: creamy and delicate, with subtle floral notes
  • Tupelo: tastes like green apples dipped in caramel
  • chestnut: bitter, stressful, sometimes smoky and almost hearty

How should I store it when I have it?

Keep honey in a cool, dark place. It will never spoil if kept free of moisture, but it could start tasting in about two years. Since honey is basically sugar and water, the glucose molecules separate from the water, making it crystallize and look like sugar candy. In fact, Marchese tells me that “Crystallization is a sign of quality” – that means you have real honey. If / when your honey crystallizes, simply run the jar under warm water and it will liquefy again. Marchese spreads her crystallized honey on toast.

Honey + garlic + time = fermented garlic honey.

Photo by Alex Lau

How can I prevent honey from getting stuck in the measuring cup?

The next time you cook with honey, coat your measuring spoon or cup with some neutral oil before adding the honey. it will slip right out. Very satisfying.

About that honey bear …

In 1957, Ralph and Luella Gamber decided to wrap their honey in a plastic bear inspired by Winnie the Pooh and reality: bears love to nibble on honey, beehives and bees. What was once a side hobby in her backyard in Pennsylvania has become a million dollar business called Dutch Gold Honey. They never patented the design, which is why so many other companies have adopted the cute container. (Fun fact: the bear has a name. It’s nugget.)

What’s up with $$$ Mānuka $$$ Honey?

Manuka honey is a popular (and more expensive) “monofloral” honey made by bees that pollinate the manuka tree grown in Australia and New Zealand. It has a higher concentration of antibacterial properties than normal honey. Make sure it is the real stuff Check to see if the label has a UMF (Unique Mānuka Factor), NPA (Non-Peroxide Activity), or MGO (Methylglyoxal) rating (each is a different measure of antimicrobial content). Phew!

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