If you’ve ever gone shopping for honey to add to your tea or toast, you may have also found yourself just a tad overwhelmed by the wide array of options on the shelf. There’s grade, origin, flower, raw vs. not raw… its enough to make us want to grab the first cute bear-shaped bottle we see and head for the checkout line ASAP.
So we went to the experts to find out what you really need to know when you’re looking at honey — and what you can ignore.
There are products “made from honey” out there, with other sweeteners like corn syrup added to save time or money. However, since honey is a “single-ingredient food,” the FDA only allows pure honey to be labelled as such. Of course, many manufacturers can be good at labeling things a “honey product,” (or cheese, wine, or milk product), so be sure to give it more than just a cursory glance. The FDA does not require a honey bottle disclose origin or types of plants the bees made the honey from, however. While that information is voluntary to include, blossom source affects honey flavor. According to the National Honey Board, clover honey is the one most people will be familiar with. Since plants are often regional, honey can also be as well. For more information on common types of honey, you can check out their full guide.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) determines honey grade. It’s a complicated scoring system that takes in to account clarity, and taste, among other things. Like school (and unlike traditional maple syrup grading), Grade A adheres to the strongest standards, with grades B and C following. Again, unlike maple syrup, color is not included in grading.
What Makes It Raw?
There are currently no strict guidelines (or certification processes) for what makes honey raw, though typically it means that it hasn’t been heated or pasteurized. While there are some claims that eating raw, local honey, which still contains pollen, could help with allergies, studies raren’t exactly conclusive. That doesn’t mean it’s useless, however. Many cooks enjoy the flavor of unprocessed honey. Jake Novick-Finder, head chef at Gristmill in Brooklyn, NY, works with a raw honey farm upstate to supply honey for his recipes.
“The advantage of using raw honey is the pureness and clarity of flavor and the wonderfully unpolished notes it can have,” he says. He also enjoys the freedom that working with unprocessed honey gives him. “We burn it in our wood-fired oven to denature some of the sugars and make it a little less sweet while giving it a smokey flavor, and then top pizzas and other dishes with it. We can do that better with raw honey than we can with processed honey.”
If you are interested in delving into raw honey yourself, Novick-Finder has some tips. He recommends looking for the least-refined option that is made the closest to you. Once purchased, your honey can literally last forever (it basically never expires), but you’ll want to store it in a cool, dry place out of direct light to keep it from crystalizing.
If it does crystalize, don’t despair. “You can put the jar in a warm bowl of water and stir the jar around until the honey thaws,” Novick-Finder advises. “Don’t get the honey wet, though!”