Learn about cooking with honey, tips for using honey and substituting honey in recipes.
Cooking with honey has added a lot of adventure to our kitchen experiences, which weren't too tame before. No, I'm not going to hit you with a long "honey is better for you" line (though I'm sure it is). My enthusiasm for this and all natural foods is more from the taste standpoint. Natural food deserves natural sweetening and cooking with honey is fun.
I've experimented quite a bit and learned quite a bit since we made the change from sugar last winter. First I read what The Joy of Cooking had to say, since The Joy is usually a good place to start researching a food preparation problem. Then I asked friends. Then I started trying.
The Honey Trip began when Husband John visited our friendly neighborhood beekeeper to get supplies for my Christmas baking, and came back with a five pound tin plus a honeycomb (a gift). (Tip Number One: Whenever possible, buy direct from a nearby source. If you use honey for all or most of your sweetening you'll need a lot, and this way you'll be able to purchase in bulk and get the best possible price. You'll also be sure that the product meets your standards: unheated, bees fed no sugar or drugs, etc. And quite likely you'll get to know someone — a beekeeper — who can teach you things you didn't know about bees or honey or whatever.)
All the first recipes I prepared with honey tasted so good, and our beekeeper's prices were so reasonable (only a little more than white sugar per "sweetening unit"), that our use of his wares sort of snowballed — and so did our education.
First of all, I learned to slow down — because naturally sweetened baked goods brown faster (a difference I like). To keep my modified breads and muffins from over browning before they've cooked through, I bake them a little longer at a lower temperature. When I'm converting a new sugar recipe to honey for the first time I automatically knock 25 degrees Fahrenheit off the oven setting.
Of course, the same consideration applies to other cooking methods as well as to baking. All dishes made with honey seem to stick a little sooner or burn a little faster. I stir more often than I used to and am forever turning down the flame.
Another point to remember is that honey adds liquid to a recipe: about three tablespoons of extra fluid per cup of sweetening or one quarter cup per pound. Even when you allow for that fact, your baked goods will tend to be moister than those made with sugar and the longer, slower baking which prevents burning also helps keep the texture moist rather than wet.
Finally, honey is slightly acid so I add a little soda (usually 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoonful per cup of sweetening) to most batters and doughs. Not to yeast breads, though, because the leavening thrives in the mildly acid environment.
Honey is a natural food, not a standardized, "purified" product. Accordingly, there's some variation in its sugar content and in the proportions of the sugars present. Tupelo honey, for instance, has more levulose and less dextrose than other types and can be identified by chemical examination for those substances. Also, honey has taste and the flavor varies depending upon a number of factors such as the weather and what flowers the bees have visited.
These "problems" of flavor and lack of standardization make honey less predictable than sugar and probably cause most of the difficulties people experience when they look for THE RATIO to use in substituting one for the other.
Well, I haven't found THE RATIO either. There is no one proportion that will always "work" that is, always produce exactly the same effect. This lack of an exact, reliable equivalent hasn't bothered me much because I like to consider cooking more as art than science, and the variability of honey is part of what makes each batch an individual achievement.
I have found, however, that light honey is easier to substitute than dark because it's more predictable in flavor and less likely to overwhelm other tastes. (The dark varieties, on the other hand, have a robust quality that's often a welcome change.) I'm told that the bees' output is "safer" — tastewise — to use if it's aged at least a year, but I can't speak from experience.
At any rate, the sugar in a recipe can generally be replaced with an equal weight of light honey — a rule that works out to about two-thirds of a cup of liquid sweetening to one of dry. And, of course, you must remember to deduct about three tablespoons of other liquid for each cup of honey you use.
It's now about a year since the beginning of the Honey Trip. We use honey instead of sugar in everything, and everything tastes better. So far I've never baked a layer cake with natural sweetening only, and I haven't missed such a dessert yet — and one of these days I'm going to try, just to be sure I can do it. (But with all whole-wheat flour.)
See the honey recipes at the top of this article.
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