Honey-Eternal Shelf Life & Other Amazing Facts

Crystallized honey
Crystallized honey

A food with no expiration date? How is it possible that honey can remain edible even thousands of years later, as evidenced by modern archaeologists finding edible honey in Egyptian tombs? The answer is as complex as honey’s flavor. There is a whole slew of factors in honey working in perfect harmony that makes this amazing substance remain edible in its raw state. There are a few other foods that fall in this longevity category: salt, sugar, and dried rice- but none have the medicinal properties of honey.

Bee in tomb
Bee in tomb

The picture below is from The Smithsonian Natural History Museum and reads:

Over 4,000 years ago, Egyptians began keeping bees and harvesting honey. Tomb paintings depict workers cultivating hives, and ancient texts talk of honey as a sweetener and antiseptic. Wax was used for mummification, salves, and even medication.

The king of Upper and Lower Egypt called himself nesir-bitly – “He who belongs to the sedge and the bee.” Ancient Egyptians considered the work of the bee divine, and they associated bees, wax, and honey with the sun god.

Honey's Role in Egyp
Honey’s Role in Egypt

But why, exactly, doesn’t honey go bad? Honey in its natural form has a very low moisture content and low pH-between 3 and 4.5. Very few bacteria or microorganisms can survive in such an environment – they just die.  The fact that organisms can’t last long in honey means they don’t get the chance to spoil it.

Also, the chemical makeup of a bees stomach plays a large role in honey’s longevity. Bees have an enzyme in their stomachs called glucose oxidase. When the bees regurgitate the nectar from their mouths into the combs to make honey (vomiting!), this enzyme mixes with the nectar, breaking it down into two by-products: gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide is the key ingredient which stops bad things from growing in the honey.

Is Honey Better Than Sugar For You?

Nutrition experts say honey, unlike table sugar, has small amounts of vitamins and minerals and that honey can aid in digestion. Researchers are looking into antioxidant levels of honey to see if they also can improve one’s health. Table sugar is pure sucrose and highly processed, while natural honey has no processing steps beyond filtering out debris and bee parts. Evidence points to less processing steps leads to healthier foods.

Bottling fresh unpasteurized honey from the hive
Bottling fresh unpasteurized honey from the hive

Crystallized Honey

But honey over time will form crystals and many honey eaters sees this condition and think it has spoiled and will throw it away. Stop! It is still good-you can use it in this form or reconstitute it into “runny honey”. Here are some common questions about crystallized honey.

Does It Mean The Honey Is Bad Or No Longer Fresh?

Not at all. Crystallization can occur very quickly after harvest – perhaps just a few days or weeks, and so there is no correlation between freshness and the crystallizing process. Be sure to store the honey in a warm sunny window or just somewhere not in the refrigerator. Cooler temps will hasten the crystallization process.

Uncapping wax covering on a frame of honey with a heated knife
Uncapping wax covering on a frame of honey with a heated knife

Almost all unheated, unfiltered honey crystallizes; some just crystallize sooner than others. You can cook with crystallized honey. Scoop it out for tea, use in stir-fries, and as a glaze on poultry and fish. Many times, I think the flavor is more concentrated and easier to use, because it is a more solid substance. If in doubt about the purity of the honey, remember pure honey will crystallize, the adulterated stuff from China that has corn syrup added will never crystallize. Also, when you drop a glob of pure honey into water, it stays in a clump. If cut with corn syrup, the honey will dissipate into the water.

A glob of pure honey will continue in that state if dropped into water
A glob of pure honey will continue in that state if dropped into water

Nectar, the first material collected by bees to make honey, is naturally very high in water–anywhere from 60-80 percent. Bees remove much of this moisture by flapping their wings to literally dry out or remove the moisture from the nectar.

A perfect capped frame of honey
A perfect capped frame of honey

Because honey is so thick, rejects any kind of growth and contains hydrogen peroxide, it creates the perfect barrier against infection for wounds. Thus, its legendary reputation as a wound healer in ancient times and surprisingly it is coming back in vogue in modern times. Derma Sciences, a medical device company, has marketed and sold MEDIHONEY bandages covered in honey used in hospitals around the world.

Why Does It Crystallize?

There are a few honeys that are very slow to crystallize. Acacia, sage, tupelo, and black locust honeys are some of them.  But the majority of honeys will start working their way to crystallization as soon as they leave the nice warm confines of a 95F hive. It can even crystallize inside a hive if the winter bee cluster is not centered on top of the honey when temperatures stay below 50F for a while. These factors affect the crystallization process:

1) Unfiltered honey: little bits of things can start the crystals growing

2) Storing temperature of the honey: Don’t store in a refrigerator! Store in the warmest and driest spot in your house. I even place crystallized honey on my front porch in the hot sun to dissolve the crystals.

3) The container is used for storage: Plastic is more porous than glass, thus the air exchange is greater. I only use glass now to store my honey.

4) Sealing the container: Honey is a sugar and is hygroscopic, a term that means it contains very little water in its natural state but can readily suck in moisture if left unsealed. So seal the jar tightly.

I store all my honey in glass
I store all my honey in glass

 

The glucose and fructose are the sugars that give honey its “sweetness”.  Glucose is the one that influences crystallization.  The more glucose in the honey, the sooner your honey will crystallize.

Honey is deposited in a mesh sieve that filters out debris
Honey is deposited in a mesh sieve that filters out debris

Temperature/Crystallization

Crystallization occurs faster at certain temperatures.  When honey drops into the fifties (towards 50F), it will start to crystallize quickly. When turning your crystallized honey into runny, you don’t want to heat it over 100 degrees. Otherwise, you will kill all the beneficial substances that naturally occur in honey – like pollen, propolis, enzymes, and antioxidants which become useless at higher temperatures. Honey stored between 70 and 95F will stay runny longer. Store that honey in a sunny window! For long term storage, it is best to freeze your honey!

Honey being judged at a State Fair
Honey being judged at a State Fair

How to Make Crystallized Honey Runny

Place your honey jar in a hot water bath on low.  I use a food thermometer to make sure I stay below 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Heating the honey slowly and steadily can take several hours so you don’t want to heat honey in a plastic container. The problem is that once the honey cools, it will be more prone to crystallization the second time around so use it up.  After a few sessions of heating and cooling, the honey will start to lose its consistency and its aroma.  Because of this it’s best if you only heat the amount of honey you want runny.  Leave the rest in the container to heat up another day.

Heating honey on stovetop
Heating honey on stovetop
Honey in plastic jar, I no longer use plastic
Honey in plastic jar, I no longer use plastic

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