"Why does my honey look cloudy? Gasp! What are those flakes floating around near the bottom of the jar? And that crusty stuff gathering around the top? Gross! This honey must have gone bad. I'm not eating this."
Stop right there! Don't throw it away. There's nothing wrong with that honey. Properly stored honey can remain stable for decades -- even centuries. Archeologists have found honey in ancient Egyptian tombs that was thousands of years old – and still good! How can this bee? Honey's sugar content and low pH make it impossible for the organisms that spoil food to survive. That, and a little bit of bee magic, but that's for another blog.
Back to your cloudy honey. Don't worry, it's just starting to granulate, or crystallize, a natural process just about every honey ends up going through. Hold onto your beekeeping veil, we're about to science!
What is crystallization?
Honey is a highly concentrated sugar solution, meaning the water present in honey contains more sugar than it naturally should, making the solution unstable. The two main sugars in honey are fructose and glucose. The ratio of these two honeys is one of the factors that determines how quickly a honey will granulize. The higher the glucose content, the faster crystallization sets in. Conversely, honeys with more fructose will crystallize much more slowly.
What is actually turning into crystals is the glucose in honey. (Fructose is more soluble in water than glucose, so it will remain viscous.) Glucose, with its lower solubility, separates from the water in honey, attaches itself to a microscopic grain of pollen or an air bubble, and takes the form of crystals. Because the crystals are denser than the remaining honey in the jar, they tend to collect at the bottom. As more and more glucose crystallizes, honey changes from an unstable saturated solution to a stable saturated form, causing the honey to become thick and grainy.
You still with me? Great! Let's continue sciencing.
Almost all honey crystallizes, but not all crystallization looks the same. Some honeys crystallize uniformly, while some only partially crystallize, resulting in a solid layer on the bottom with a liquid layer on top. The size of the crystals also varies from honey to honey. Some form fine crystals that making a nice, smooth, and creamy spread. Other honeys develop large, jagged crystals that result in a thick, grainy texture. The more rapidly a honey crystallizes, the finer the texture will be.
Perhaps you have tried our Original Whipped Honey or Winter White Honey? Guess what -- CRYSTALLIZED. That's right, we intentionally encourage these honeys to crystallize rapidly in a controlled environment so they develop into the smooth, creamy sweetness you just can't get enough of! You want to know why that honey is white? As honey granulizes, it loses its golden yellow or amber hue and takes on a light, almost frosty, color. This is because the crystals are basically dehydrated glucose particles, which are naturally pure white.
What influences crystallization
Although most varieties of honey crystallize after extracting it from the comb, those that contain less than 30 percent glucose -- such as Acacia, Sourwood, Tupelo, Black Sage, and Saw Palmetto -- all resist crystallization. (Notice I didn't say "never crystallize.")
Besides a honey's chemical makeup, temperature is another main factor that affects crystallization. It's best to store honey in a sealed container between 50–70 degrees Fahrenheit, roughly room temperature. Honey can be kept in the refrigerator if preferred but it will crystallize faster and become dense. Storing honey in the freezer will preserve it and it won't granulate since the temperature is too cold for crystals to form. (A note about whipped - sometimes called spun or creamed - honey storage: Keep it on the counter if you like it soft and in the fridge if you like it a little thicker. Warm temperatures will encourage whipped honey to separate. Not a big deal because you can just stir it up. But if you want to keep it intact, refrigerate it.)
Bottled honey tends to granulize faster than honey left in the comb. The extracting and bottling process many times introduces into honey the tiny bubbles on which crystals like to form. Also, honey like ours, that hasn't been extensively filtered, allows particles of pollen, beeswax, and propolis (basically, all the good stuff) to remain in the honey. Crystals love to begin their formation on these little guys, too. So, really, crystallization is an indication the honey you bought is of high quality.
Why people don't like it
So why does everyone freak out when they see a few crystals forming in their honey? The short answer is because we have been conditioned to think that way. People in other parts of the world don't even bat an eye at crystallized honey. Also, people in the U.S. are used to grocery store honey, which typically is a mass-produced, pasteurized mixture of low-quality honey and various syrups. This stuff doesn't crystallize. Why? Because that honey is highly processed, which destroys all the nutrients in it as well as removes all the pollen. And, as we just learned, it's the pollen that the glucose sticks to during the crystallization process. (Not all honey at the grocery store these days is "fake." There are some good-quality honeys on the shelves. You just have to do your homework.)
There is one understandable reason why crystallized honey might be considered "bad." Raw honey has not been pasteurized; therefore, it contains live yeast. When the glucose separates from the honey, the leftover liquid naturally contains a higher percentage of water, allowing the yeast to grow and ferment the sugars. This fermentation can make the honey smell and taste "off."
How to re-liquify honey
If you notice your honey is starting to crystallize, and you just can't bear it, there are some steps you can take. The best method is to fill a bowl with hot (not boiling) water and let your bottle of honey sit in it until the crystals dissolve. Swirl the jar around occasionally to make sure the heat is evenly distributed. You can microwave crystallized honey on a very low setting, but high temperatures will destroy the enzymes and vitamins, so you'll want to be very careful. High temps may also change the color and flavor of honey.
You can also use crystallized honey to bake. Or just simply add it to hot liquids and foods like coffee, tea, and oatmeal. Spread it on hot biscuits or toast. That crystallized honey will melt in seconds and taste delicious, too!