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Honey 101

honeyBeyond the familiar bear-shaped squeeze bottle, there are as many varieties of honey out there as there are breeds of wine. (Well, almost.) Honey is wine among sweeteners; far beyond a mere source of syrupy sweetness, good-quality honeys can add a distinctive flavor to your recipes, your yogurt, or even your toast.

When selecting your honey, understand that varieties aren’t determined by the type of bee that produced them, but by the flowers those bees lived in. It makes sense then that the environment region, weather conditions, even time of year – would have a significant impact on the flavor and other attributes of the resulting honey. This resemblance to wine continues on to the tasting stage: think of the blossoms as types of grape, with environmental and botanical variables contributing to subtle (and not so subtle) fluctuations in color, aroma, clarity, density, sweetness and flavor within each variety.

Generic honeys are produced using a wide variety of flowers in order to maintain consistency and a uniform sweetness. These honeys tend to be generic tasting, in the middle ground color-wise, without much in the way of unique flavor. Monofloral honeys those more prized for having been produced from the nectar of only one plant species have far more distinctive characteristics. Beekeepers often go to great lengths to segregate their blossoms, so as to not contaminate a pure honey by allowing their bees to (gasp!) forage on another flower. While most honeys labeled “blackberry” or “Saskatoon” refer to the landscape of the bees’ residence, others have flavours added; unusually bright colors are a good indication of added flavor. If you’re not sure, check the label.

In the kitchen, honeys are interchangeable in most recipes because texturally they are so similar. It’s the difference in flavor you should consider when faced with a shelf full of honey jars in varying shades of gold, amber and teak; a general rule of thumb is: the darker the color, the stronger the flavor. To backtrack to our vino association, think of cooking with honey as you would cooking with wine; you won’t be able to detect the same flavor nuances you’d taste in a glass of Shiraz once you’ve poured it over a lamb shank and braised it. Subtle dishes like crème brulée and panna cotta allow the true flavor of the honey you choose to come through, whereas those distinctive flavors you appreciated on your toast may get lost in a salmon marinade or sauce for pork ribs.

When baking with honey, the fact that it’s a liquid can throw a recipe off if you substitute it cup for cup for brown or granulated sugar. Because honey also has humectant qualities meaning it draws moisture from the air use too much of it and you risk ending up with gummy baked goods. For these reasons, when used in quantity honey is better suited to cakes, muffins – really anything with a cakey texture – than it is to crisp or chewy cookies and brownies. Honey also tends to be sweeter than plain old table sugar due to the higher ratio of fructose molecules to glucose. Varieties range from as sweet as white sugar to about 50% sweeter; the sweeter honeys are produced by flowers that are naturally richer in fructose. If you do substitute honey for sugar in a recipe, use about 3/4 as much honey as you would sugar, and if you can, reduce the liquid by about 1/4 cup for each cup of sugar you have replaced. Because honey also browns more quickly than sugar, keep an eye on whatever it is you’re baking; it could end up too dark, or you might inadvertently take it out when it’s underdone, because visually it will look baked, having turned golden at an earlier stage.

Sticky Quickies

  • Simmer a bag of fresh or frozen cranberries with 1/2-3/4 cup honey, the grated zest of an orange, 1 tsp. grated ginger and a pinch of cinnamon to make a spiced honey cranberry sauce.
  • Stir together a simple honey-chocolate sauce: bring about ½ cup of honey to a simmer in a small pot; remove from heat and stir in an equal amount of chopped semi-sweet or dark chocolate and stir until melted and smooth.
  • Make honey mustard vinaigrette my shaking together 1 tablespoon of honey and 1 tablespoon of mustard with ¼ cup wine vinegar and 1/3 cup canola or olive oil.
  • Glaze your ham with ½ cup honey, ¼ cup grainy mustard and ¼ cup balsamic vinegar.
  • Cut yams or sweet potatoes into wedges; toss with canola or olive oil and roast on a baking sheet at 400°F for about 30 minutes. Brush with honey and roast for another 10 minutes, until tender and golden.
  • To make honey truffles, melt 200 g chopped dark chocolate with 1/4 cup mild or strong honey; chill and roll into balls, then dust with cocoa powder.
  • Put a scoop of vanilla ice cream into a tall glass and drizzle it with honey. Mash it about until it’s soft, then pour over as much ginger ale as you like.
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