Honey is the sweet food made by honeybees, primary pollinators of 90+ food crops in the United States, and about 35% of foods grown globally. Bees are carefully managed and transported from farm to farm to ensure adequate pollination of the crop. In New York, that includes our famous apples! Bees and their important relationship with farming and food have been recognized for thousands of years – for example, there is evidence of bee keeping in ancient Egypt and Greece.
Bees visit thousands of flowers in their lifetimes. As they collect pollen and nectar, they also transfer grains of pollen, which ensures the plants can reproduce. The nectar is stored in the honeycomb, to be used as fuel to power flying and hive construction. Pollen grains provide protein, fats, and other nutrients to young bees. Bees are always busy, and the perpetual movement of their wings evaporates some of the water in the nectar, yielding the thickened, sweet honey, which also contains some vitamins, minerals, organic acids, flavonoids, and phenolic compounds. They make more honey than they use, which is harvested by beekeepers that ensure the hive has everything needed to stay healthy and productive. That honey crop is filtered to remove bits of wax and bottled, ready for us to explore and enjoy!
Culinary and medicinal uses of honey are many, some rooted in tradition, such as sweetening tea and using as a cough remedy, and others gaining ground in modern studies and medicine. Like fine wine, honey can have flavor elements or “terroir” that come from the types of flowers they visited and other agricultural characteristics of the area they are from. A simple example, orange blossom honey is particular to honey produced near orange trees and is light-colored and fragrant. Buckwheat and avocado honeys are dark amber with a hint of molasses and have their own unique nutrient profile. Honey is produced all over the world, so the opportunity for different flavors, colors and health properties are diverse and may even be particular to a region. Manuka honey is only made by bees in New Zealand and Australia. That honey has well-studied anti-bacterial and antibiotic qualities. Research has shown certain types of honey aid in wound healing, and others have benefit as a supportive treatment for symptoms like dry mouth or mucositis in cancer treatment.
When it comes to cooking, honey is a culinary star! It can be used in place of white or brown sugar in most recipes, balances acid in vinegar-based dressings/pickling/or citrus glazes that make everything special. Honey also takes the sting out of spicy foods – which explains the hot honey culinary trend for chicken and anything else (sweet potatoes? Pork tenderloin?) you want to try. There are many wonderful combinations to explore – honey mustard, honey garlic, honey lime, honey butter, even honey harissa!
Whatever the source, pure honey is made sweeter by its many uses and its very compelling mandatory role in ensuring we have the foods we need and want to eat. Speaking of which, check out some of the recipes below – you are sure to find one that will help you put great on your plate!