Why does honey crystallize?

Why does honey crystallize?

Does honey ever go bad?

It’s one of the most frequent questions we hear, and we’re going to assuage any fears you have about that old honey in the back of your pantry---NO!  Honey never expires! 

This is one of my favorite honey facts to share because the idea of food that doesn’t spoil is hard to fathom; in fact, honey is one of the only food products, when stored properly, will never expire.  If you’re the type of person to leave honey on-hand and untouched for great lengths of time, it’s best to purchase honey in a glass jar.  This is because, while honey doesn’t expire, the plastic container certainly does!  When honey is stored in a plastic container, overtime, the plastic can begin to break down and will leech into the honey.  To avoid this, look for honey bottled in glass containers.  When honey is sealed in a glass container, it can be kept for generations; but, let’s be honest here, who keeps honey that long?!

Why does honey “turn to sugar?”  

Sometimes, liquid honey can granulate or crystallize over time.  This is a natural process and it does not mean that the honey has gone bad!  To understand why honey will crystallize, it’s important to know what honey is actually made of.  At its core, honey is an unstable over-saturated solution of sugar and water.  With so much sugar, the solution is constantly in an internal struggle between staying liquid or reverting back to its crystalline structure.  Sometimes, the sugar’s will to revert back to its crystal form is too great and the honey will crystallize.  

How is honey made?

It’s a long list of things, so get ready: sugar and water.  That’s it.  I know, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true!  At its core, honey is made up of just two simple ingredients: sugar and water.  When a honey bee collects nectar from a flower, the nectar is about 80% water and 20% sugar.  At that ratio, the nectar is thin and runny;  it’s not much at all like the honey we know and love.  If a bee were to take this unrefined nectar and store it for consumption later, they’d have a mess of trouble on their hands.  As any backyard moonshiner knows, a little water, sugar, and time, and you’ll have yourself some booze.  Since alcohol wouldn’t be a suitable substitute for real food, the honey bees must further process the nectar to allow it to be stored indefinitely until it's consumed by the colony.  The bees will reduce the water content of the honey until the ratio flips and it is about 20% water and 80% sugar.  At this ratio, there is too little moisture for the latent yeast found in the honey to convert the sugars into alcohol, and the honey can be stored to be eaten during the winter months.

What kind of sugar is in honey?

While there are many types of sugar that can be found in honey, the two predominant types are fructose and glucose.  The type of sugar that is in honey will depend on the type of nectar the bee collected from to make the honey.  Just like the viscosity, mineral content, or color, the type of sugars in honey will vary with the nectar source.  Fructose honey is more water soluble than glucose, so honey that is primarily made up of fructose honey will crystallize at a slower rate.  Honey that is typically higher in glucose sugar will crystallize at a faster rate.  In the United States, Tupelo honey is one of the most famous honey varieties; one of its famed characteristics is its tendency to resist crystallization.  This is because fructose sugar is the predominant sugar found in this varietal.  Although tupelo is perhaps the most famous, there are many honey types that are very slow to crystallize or will resist crystallization altogether.

If my honey crystallizes, is there anything I can do to change it back?

Yes!  Although crystallized honey is fine to eat as it is, sometimes it's nice to liquefy the honey once more.  This can be easily accomplished when the honey is bottled in a glass container.  If your honey has crystallized, do not put it in the microwave.  Doing so can flash pasteurize the honey, altering its enzyme content and changing the nutritional value of the honey.  Instead, place the glass jar in a pot of warming water.  Do not bring the water to a boil, but slowly warm the honey to just over 100 degrees.  Giving the honey a warm water bath will help to reconstitute the honey into a liquid form.

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