Updated: Feb 3
It's happened to nearly every regular consumer of honey: we are going through our cupboards and find an old jar of honey at the back of the shelf that has gone from a clear golden liquid to a solid mass of sugary crystals. Such was the case this week when I was doing some organizing in the basement and came across three ancient jars from bygone honey contests. Since I wanted this honey out of my basement and onto my corn flakes, I figured I might as well return it to a liquid state and write an informative blog about the process.
Granulation, the formation of solid sugar crystals in honey is a natural process. It occurs as a result of the high concentration of natural sugars in honey, which is far greater than what would normally dissolve in a solution. Those of you who remember your high school chemistry classes may recall that this type of solution is referred to as a super-saturated solution. When bees gather nectar from flowers, that nectar typically is about 20% sugar and 80% water. Through the addition of trace amounts of enzymes combined with air drying the nectar by beating their wings, the bees are able to bring the amount of water down to 18.5% or lower, meaning that in it's final state, honey is more than 81.5% sugars (mostly glucose and fructose). This has obvious advantages for the bees, who are able to store more food energy in a smaller amount of space. It also means that the water in honey is occupied trying to keep all that sugar in solution and is likewise unavailable to spoilage organisms, keeping the honey edible virtually indefinitely.
The downside of honey's super-saturated status is granulation. Any surface sugar molecules can find- the sides of the container, a speck of dust- they will gladly take advantage of to form solid crystals. Anyone who has made rock candy has seen this process in action. Though granulation does not affect the quality or edibility of honey, it does make it difficult to process and package, reduces it's visual appeal, and makes it downright impossible to pour from a jar.
Returning granulated honey to a liquid is an ongoing operation for every beekeeper who bottles his or her honey for sale. After the honey is extracted from the combs, it is stored in five gallon buckets until it is needed for bottling. This honey inevitably granulates over months of storage. When we bottle a batch of honey, we gently heat the buckets in warm water for a few hours- just enough to be able to dump it into our honey tank. Once in the tank, it is heated again until it is completely liquid, so it can be strained and bottled.
Once heated and strained, honey should remain liquid for months if left in an unopened container and stored at room temperature. If, however, your honey does granulate before you eat it all, the process is easily reversible at home; which brings us back to those jars of honey I found in my basement.
For turning my granulated honey jars back into pourable liquid sunshine, I turn to none other than my trusty microwave. It does the job with minimal fuss and if used carefully, doesn't affect the quality of the honey at all, provided you follow these instructions:
Remove the lid from your honey jar.
Heat the jar in short bursts of 10 to 30 seconds at a time, depending on the strength of your microwave. This will prevent scorching. If your jar is too hot to hold in hour hand, stop heating it (110 degrees is an acceptable temperature for liquefying honey).
Once the honey is warm, remove it from the microwave and replace the lid tightly and agitate the jar to help loosen the sugar crystals, then set it aside.
Repeat steps 1 through 3 as necessary until your honey is liquid.
It should be said that it is perfectly acceptable to use granulated honey, there is no need to liquefy it before eating. Granulated honey will dissolve just fine in hot beverages and works well in cooking and baking. If all you want is to get your honey out of the jar, it is not necessary to eliminate every last crystal. For use at the table though, I prefer my honey totally liquid, and I'm sure most or you do as well.
Just remember that there is no need to throw out those neglected granulated honey jars you find.