Sweetness. We can't do without it. We may debate why vanilla is the best-selling ice cream, and whether chocoholics have some form of madness. But what's indisputable is that we all love things that are sweet. Our meals end with dessert, even if it's a simple piece of fruit. We buy stacks of Girl Scout cookies under the guise of a good cause. And we save our sweetest nicknames for those we love the most.
Sugar-loving can certainly have its demons and there are many examples of sweetness gone terribly wrong. For example, gummy vitamins for adults. Then there's all that corn syrup in processed foods (it's both the third and fourth ingredient in ketchup). Or those little orange and white candy corns at Halloween that guarantee a sugar crash and a blinding headache. I never learn.
But for sweetness that is almost perfect, we have honey.
The Legacy of Honey
Honey is both an ancient and a modern food. Harold McGee writes in On Food and Cooking how prehistoric cave paintings in Valencia show humans collecting honey. When archeologists and tomb raiders opened the pyramids they found jars of honey, left as sustenance for the pharaohs' afterlife journeys and still edible after 4,000 years. In the Old Testament the Promised Land is a place rich with "milk and honey." Classical Greeks and Romans used honey in sacrifices to the gods and an emperor or two.
Today we still give honey medicinal credit when we add it to tea with lemon (or a shot of Scotch) as comfort for a head cold. It's used as a holistic treatment for cold sores and as a dressing for burns. And although there are some disagreements about honey's exact disease-fighting and anti-oxidant powers, we can be sure that it is a delicious and healthy food.
The one warning for honey eating is to never give it to children under the age of one because it contains spores, which babies can't yet tolerate.
Bees fly from plant to plant, collecting nectar from flowers to bring back to their hive to make honey for food, and wax to build honeycombs. It is a hive's excess honey -- what the bees don't need to survive -- that is harvested for humans to eat.
In the last few years there have been disturbing news reports about a crisis in the bee world. The crisis is called "Colony Collapse Disorder" and simply put, it means bees are dying at a terrifying rate. The cause is not known but theories include viruses, pollutants and the proliferation of cell phone towers. What is certain is that it is related to the stress on our overall ecosystem.
We need our bees to pollinate our plants and make one-third of our food possible. Einstein said that if the bees were to disappear, humans would only last 4 more years. Our survival is that dependent on them.
The bee crisis is a global problem and the world's governments and scientists are responding. A few months ago the European Parliament authorized the creation of "recovery zones" -- areas planted with wild, uncultivated plant life that is free of pesticides. In the U.S. where there are over 200,000 beekeepers, amateur beekeeping is being encouraged to add to the volume of hives across the country.
In New York, and other cities across the country, urban beekeepers are doing their part. We spoke with David Graves of Berkshire Berries who keeps rooftop beehives all over New York. His farm is in the Berkshires but from his weekly post at the Union Square Greenmarket, he solicits New Yorkers to make space on their rooftops for beehives. He began in 1985 and the number of hives vary from year-to-year; right now he has 14 from which he harvests and bottles "New York City Roof-top Honey," sold at the Union Square Greenmarket on Saturday mornings. Each hive can produce between sixty and a hundred and forty pounds of strong, very sweet honey made from the nectar of gingko, linden and other New York trees.
Although he was profiled by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker in 2007, Mr. Graves is modest about any personal attention he gets, instead shifting every answer back to the bees. "Go Google 'every third bite,'" he instructs, anxious for his honey customers to know that if the bees are in trouble, so are we.
[Note: Mr. Graves and other urban beekeepers for years hid in plain sight because until recently in New York City, unlike most cities across the country, beekeeping was illegal. A section of the City's health code categorized bees as wild animals and "venemous insects," putting beekeepers at risk of $2,000 fines. But in 2010 the NYC City Council and Department of Health finally made some sense of this and changed the health code to make the honeybee legal.]
Selecting and Buying Honey
We have choices when we buy honey.
- First is it raw or processed? Second, is it from a particular kind of plant or flower? You'll see other labels that can add to or confuse your choice, like "pasteurized," or "organic."
Raw honey is directly from the hive. Some is sold still in honeycombs but more commonly it's been strained to remove any wax or debris. Honey is naturally a very stable food and does not need to be processed for food safety. Just keep it stored in a tightly sealed container.
Still, much commercially produced honey is "filtered" or "processed" which means it is not only strained but also heated to about 155º F to either make it less thick or extend its shelf life. The heating destroys any sugar fermenting yeasts and any excess moisture that may lead to spoilage but nothing is added to processed honey. Pasteurized honey is another more aggressive method of processing, and "organic" is honey harvested from hives that are surrounded by several miles of land that is documented as organic farmland, so all the nectar is from organic plants, although I'd ask -- how can you be sure?
Although most honey is naturally from a mixture of nectars, some bees make honey from a single flower adding a flavor that can naturally vary from season to season, like the vintage of a wine. There are about 300 "monofloral" honeys produced around the world; some of the most popular are from orange blossom, buckwheat, clover or lavender nectar. But most of the honeys in our grocery markets will be blended for a consistent flavor and appearance.
- Should you refrigerate honey? No. It's very stable and has a long shelf life, even after a jar has been opened. But always keep honey stored in a moisture-tight container or else it might crystallize.
- Where should you buy honey? It depends on how you're going to use it. If you prefer raw honey, the best sources are Greenmarkets, farmers markets and natural food stores. At Greenmarkets and farmers markets you can often speak directly with the beekeeper and ask about the location of the hives and how the honey is harvested and bottled. If you're going to use the honey in cooking, as in a marinade or baking, a commercially produced supermarket honey, which costs less, may be just fine.
Cooking With Honey
- Honey's flavor is both sweet and complex. It is mostly sucrose but may also include glucose and fructose. It may have health benefits that sugar doesn't have, but honey is still high in calories, in fact slightly higher than sugar. One tablespoon of honey has 64 calories compared to sugar's 46; a cup of honey is 1031 calories and sugar is 770. Honey has no fat, no cholesterol and a negligible amount of sodium.
- The most common way to use honey in cooking is as a visible sweetener -- as when we add it to a cup of tea, or drizzle on yogurt or a slice of toast. A City Cook reader, Gabriel, who recently wrote to me (and asked me to take on this topic of honey), makes a favorite drink with honey, warm milk and a vanilla bean, which sounds exquisite.
- Honey is an essential ingredient in baklava, honey cake, Italian torrone, and halvah. If you want to substitute honey for sugar in a conventional sugar-based recipe, the ratio is one-to-one. In other words, a teaspoon of honey replaces a teaspoon of sugar. But remember that honey has both sweetness and flavor, whereas sugar is only sweet, so making a switch can change the taste of whatever you're making. Honey also has moisture where sugar does not, so adding honey to a recipe can change the texture, a good thing with many cakes and breads.
- I like to add honey to glazes for fish or meat. Our recipe for Teriyaki Ginger Chicken uses a cup of honey in a quick marinade that turns into a glaze when the chicken is baked.
- The milky plainness of ricotta, especially a traditional sheep's milk ricotta, is perfectly complemented by honey's complexity. In Italy thick slices of bread are toasted to become bruschetta, then spread with ricotta and drizzled with buckwheat honey. Is it sweet? Is it savory? The contrast is what makes the flavor so winning.
At a recent Greenmarket the market staff were handing out a recipe for Honey Pie and we've adapted the recipe for you here. It's similar to a pecan pie but despite its cup of honey, it's not as sweet.
- The commercial honey industry is regulated by the USDA. The U.S. National Honey Board is an industry group whose website (see our link below) has about 1,400 recipes, some of which are useful for home cooks trying to substitute honey for granulated sugar.
I'm more than happy to just have a little New York City Roof-top Honey drizzled on a piece of whole wheat toast and a generous coating of peanut butter, eating it while I hum a little Beatles and think about the bees:
Honey pie, you are making me crazy. I'm in love but I'm lazy. So won't you please come home.