Crystallization of Honey

BEAR IN MIND THAT CRYSTALLIZATION OF HONEY HAS NO BEARING ON ITS QUALITY, BUT IT IS AN ATTRIBUTE OF PURE AND NATURAL HONEY.

Honey crystallization or granulation is a natural phenomenon by which honey turns from liquid (runny) state to a semi-solid state. Beekeepers refer to this as set honey.

Crystallization of honey is little understood by the consuming public. Many assume that honey appears crystallized to be an adulterated or unnatural product. That is not so. Actually, crystallization process is natural and spontaneous. Most pure raw or unheated honey has a natural tendency to crystallize over time. Crystallization does not affect the honey except for colour and texture. Crystallized honey is not spoiled and preserves the flavour and quality characteristics of the liquid honey. Some honey users like it in this state since it is easy to spread on bread or toast without dripping off and the taste is richer.

Why honey crystallizes?

Honey is a highly concentrated sugar solution. It contains more than 70% sugars and less than 20% water. There is much sugar in honey relative to the water content. This means that the water in honey contains an extra amount of sugar than it could naturally hold. The overabundance of sugar makes honey unstable. It is natural for honey to crystallize since it is an over-saturated sugar solution. The two principal sugars in honey are fructose (fruit sugar) and glucose (grape sugar). The content of fructose and glucose in honey varies from one type of honey to the other. Generally, the fructose ranges from 30- 44 % and glucose from 25- 40 %. The balance of these two major sugars is the main reason that leads to crystallization of honey, and the relative percentage of each determines whether it crystallizes rapidly or slowly. What crystallizes is the glucose, due to its lower solubility. Fructose is more soluble in water than glucose and will remain fluid. When glucose crystallizes, it separates from water and takes the form of tiny crystals. As the crystallization progresses and more glucose crystallizes, those crystals spread throughout the honey. The solution changes to a stable saturated form, and ultimately the honey becomes thick or crystallized. Some honeys crystallize uniformly; some will be partially crystallized and form two layers, with the crystallized layer on the bottom of the jar and a liquid on top. Honeys also vary in the size of the crystals formed. Some form fine crystals and others large, gritty ones. The more rapid honey crystallizes, the finer the texture will be. Crystallized honey tends to set a lighter/paler colour than when liquid. This is due to the fact that glucose sugar tends to separate out in dehydrating crystals form, and that glucose crystals are naturally pure white. Darker honeys retain a brownish appearance.

How fast will honey crystallize?

Different types of honey will crystallize at different rates. Some honey crystallizes within a few weeks after extraction from the combs, whereas others remain liquid for months or years. The following factors influence the speed of crystallization:

  • The nectar source collected by bees (the sugar composition of honey)
  • The methods in which honey is handled (processed)
  • The temperature in preservation

The time it will take the honey to crystallize depends mostly on the ratio of fructose to glucose, the glucose to water ratio. Honey high in glucose sugar, with a low fructose to glucose ratio will crystallize more rapidly, such as alfalfa, cotton, dandelion, mesquite, mustard and rape (brassica napus). Honey with a higher fructose to glucose ratio (containing less than 30% glucose) crystallizes quite slowly and can stay liquid for several years without special treatment, for example, robinia (black locust), sage, longan, tupelo and jujube/sidr (ziziphusspina-christi).

Crystallized honey can be brought back to liquid consistency by gently heating it in a hot water bath (Bain Marie) or warming cabinet (box) until the honey re-liquefies. Heating should be applied indirectly, not by direct flame to a container.

In order to liquefy honey, it is best to heat it at 35-40 ºC (95-104 ºF). The temperature should not go beyond 40 ºC (104 ºF) to avoid overheating. Overheating honey for any period of time will reduce its quality by destroying its enzymes, loss the delicate flavour, aroma and darkening the honey colour. Heating must be done with care if the nutritional value of the honey is not to be spoiled. It is possible to re-liquefy crystallized honey without damaging its quality by the method described below.

Heat a saucepan filled with enough water to reach the level of honey in the jar to 35 - 40ºC (95-104 ºF), then remove it from the heat or turn off the heat. Immerse the honey bottle in the water. Let it stand for about 20-30 minutes. The heat will slowly dissolve the glucose crystals and become liquid again. Stir occasionally to even the heat throughout the honey, as crystallized honey is a poor conductor of heat. Replace the hot water if needed. Remove the jar of honey from the water bath when honey becomes liquid again. Honey in a plastic jar can be re-liquefied by transferring or scooping it into glass jars, and the process above is used.

Avoiding crystallization

Store honey at room temperature in tightly closed containers. The optimum temperature for storing honey is 21 to 27 ºC (70-80 ºF). Avoid storing honey in cold temperature of 11 to 18 ºC (52- 64ºF), which is ideal for crystal formation. Don’t store in the refrigerator.Refrigerator temperatures accelerate the process of crystallization.

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