A Complete Guide to Honey
Wildflower, acacia, honeydew, manuka – there are countless varieties of honey available these days, but what makes each one special? Get to know more about how this fascinating product is made and the differences between each bottle.
Of all the incredible ingredients out there, honey has to be one of the most fascinating. A colony can contain tens of thousands of bees all working in unison to create this delicious sweet product, which is full of health benefits and has been nourishing mankind for millennia. Go into any supermarket and you’ll find aisles filled with the stuff, ranging from the mass-made and commoditised to the artisanal and specialist, covering a range of flavours, textures, regions and prices. And with at least 300 different types of honey produced around the world, it’s no wonder some of us don’t know which one to go for when we want some to cook with, mix into drinks, drizzle over dishes or simply spread on toast. Why is a jar of manuka honey ten times the price of a bog-standard bottle? Why do honeys differ in colour? How is honey actually made?
In brief, bees make honey so they have something to eat in the colder months. When flowers are in bloom they will travel for miles in search of flowers containing precious nectar, which they suck up with little tongues and store in a special honey stomach. Once full, they’ll head back to the hive and pass this nectar on to worker bees, which ‘chew’ the nectar until their enzymes transform the nectar into honey. The honey is then stored inside little hexagonal honeycomb cells which are sealed with wax, ready to be tapped open and eaten when needed.
Beekeepers then harvest this honey from the hive (only taking the excess to ensure the bees don’t starve) and bottle or jar it for human consumption. But not all honey is the same; like wine, there are a huge number of variables and factors that have an impact on the final flavour, colour and texture. Everything from which plants and flowers the bees have been harvesting to how the beekeeper processes the honey will change things. Terroir plays an important factor too – a lavender honey from Croatia will taste different to a lavender honey from the south of France, for example.
It would be impossible to cover every single honey in just one article, but we’ve shed light on some of the most common varieties below. If you’re after a truly flavourful honey that’s filled with nutritional health benefits, go beyond the industrially made, over-processed and pasteurised honeys and seek out something special. Honey is a vital ingredient for any cook as it adds a natural sweetness to dishes, but it’s also just as good spread on toast or drizzled over desserts. See which one tickles your fancy and seek some out!
Soft set honey
This beige, creamy, thick honey isn’t made from a specific type of plant – it is simply processed in a different way. Liquid honey is blended with a small amount of crystallised honey with a very fine grain, resulting in the velvety texture and pale opaque colour. This doesn’t impact the flavour, but it creates a product that is absolutely perfect for spreading.
If bees have access to a large variety of different flowers around their hive, then the resulting honey is often called wildflower (or ‘polyfloral’), as the beekeeper cannot be sure which plants the colony is harvesting. This doesn’t mean the honey is inferior in any way; it simply means that it’s derived from a combination of different nectars, each with their own flavour profiles and characteristics. The flavour can vary from batch to batch, but overall they are usually boldly floral, pleasantly sweet and ideal for a huge variety of uses.
Blossom honey simply refers to honeys that are made from the nectar of plants, and is what the vast majority of honeys you’ll see on shop shelves are classed as. Also sometimes known as nectar honey, it covers almost all single-variety honeys produced by beekeepers.
Honeydew (or forest) honey
Honeydew honey is the alternative to blossom honey, and is less common. While bees will always opt for nectar to feed the hive, if there’s a shortage then they will collect the sap of plants or trees which has been ingested and expelled by other smaller insects (usually aphids). The resulting honey is less sweet than blossom honey, with a slightly more acidic flavour and darker colour. Most honeydew sap comes from trees, so if you see a jar of honey with a tree such as fir, birch or oak listed, it will be a honeydew honey.
Heather honey comes from – you guessed it – purple heather. It is regarded as one of the most distinct varieties in the UK, with the majority of it coming from Scotland where moorlands are often covered in striking heather plants. Dark amber in colour with a semi-set texture, it has notes of smoke, toffee and stone fruits, which makes it one of the most popular speciality honeys around.
Acacia honey is very light and delicate and will stay in a liquid state for years before crystallising, which makes it fantastic for drizzling or stirring into drinks. The colour can range from pale yellow to almost clear (depending on the type of acacia the bees have been feeding on) and it has a prominent floral flavour that goes particularly well with cheese.
If beehives are placed near vast swathes of a particular herb – most commonly rosemary, thyme or lavender – their honey will become naturally infused with its flavour. A lot of this honey comes from the Mediterranean, and while it’s delicious simply spread on toast or drizzled over desserts it’s also well-suited when cooking meats such as lamb or chicken. You’ll also find honeys that have been infused with various herbs after being harvested – these will have a much more prominent herb flavour and can easily be made at home by simply submerging rosemary, thyme or lavender into a jar of honey and leaving it for a few weeks.
For honey to be classified as organic, the hives must be placed in an area surrounded by 100% organic plants that stretches at least twelve kilometres in any direction (which is the distance bees will travel in search for nectar). This makes creating organic honey in the UK practically impossible, so it is almost always imported from larger countries. Once the beekeeper gets the organic accreditation, however, they can then make any honey they like – either a blend or a specific variety – depending on what’s growing around the hive.
Manuka honey is the crème de la crème of all honeys – and has the price tag to match. A truly specialist product, all manuka honey originally came from New Zealand, where the indigenous manuka bush grows, although some is now produced in Australia as well. The nectar from this bush has antibacterial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which makes it highly sought after, and there are different categories of manuka honey depending on how antibacterial it is, known as Unique Manuka Factor (UMF), Non Peroxide Activity (NPA) or Methylglyoxal (MGO). It is dark, thick and herbaceous, tasting unlike any other honey out there. Many people simply eat it by the teaspoon to soothe a sore throat, but its unique flavour also makes it a fantastic addition to toast.
Rather than extracting honey from the hive, beekeepers can simply cut the honeycomb into slabs to sell. The hexagonal holes are bursting with liquid honey, but you can also eat the comb itself, which is slightly crunchy and chewy. Completely unfiltered and totally natural, this is a delicious way to eat honey – try breaking it up into small pieces to be stirred through yoghurt or porridge.
When bees return to their hives stuffed full of nectar, some of them also collect pollen in little baskets on their hind legs (known as corbicula) to feed the colony. Any excess gets knocked off as they squeeze through the tiny entrance to the hive, and clever beekeepers put trays down to collect it all. The resulting bee pollen is packed with nutrients and has become a bit of a superfood in recent years, with the health-conscious adding the little yellow grains into smoothies or using them to add a subtle sweetness to desserts.
Honey’s natural taste works so well in such a large variety of dishes, but you’ll also find jars of it infused with other ingredients to add another dimension of flavour. Everything from chocolate and chilli to lemon and raspberry has been blended with honey to add something a little different to the natural product. Chefs experiment with it in restaurants; shops stock jars of flavoured honey which are perfect for spreading on toast and keen home cooks will infuse honey with their own ingredients to create something homemade.
Post created in partnership with Great British Chefs.