Honey’s move beyond sweet
WRITTEN & PHOTOGRAPHED BY LAURA SILVERMAN
The San people of the Kalahari Desert tell the story of a honeybee that carried a mantis across a wide river. Exhausted, it deposited its cargo on a floating flower and, just before dying, planted a seed in the mantis’s body. This grew until it became the first human.
For centuries, in diverse civilizations around the world, honeybees have signified immortality and resurrection, diligence and indefatigable effort. The substance that fuels all this focused activity, their pellucid and voluptuous lifeblood, is honey. This liquid gold paints as vivid an expression of terroir as any fine wine, paying tribute to a rich array of pastoral sources with an ineffable sweetness. Its mystical taste varies depending on the season, the weather and what’s in bloom. Varietal honeys owe their distinctive characters to the bees’ diet: goldenrod, pine, buckwheat and basswood. They can be pale yellow or deep amber, wildly musky or delicate and ethereal. I love our upstate and Hudson Valley honeys and avidly support small purveyors in my area, but I’ve also indulged in fennel honey from Morocco and sourwood honey from Mississippi, and those luxurious flavors haunt me still.
Honey isn’t merely sweet. Dissolving on the tongue, it reveals a spectrum of aromatics, ranging from toasty and caramelized to floral and woody, that dovetail beautifully with salty, bitter and nutty notes. It’s this complexity that makes honey such a versatile and unique culinary ingredient, as delicious drizzled over yogurt as it is whisked into a salad dressing or spackled onto a smoked ham. Though many recipes allow for a one-to-one exchange of honey for sugar, it’s important to take into account honey’s water-attracting nature when using it for baked goods. Properly adjusted quantities ensure a wonderfully moist crumb in baking. The actual texture of honey actually depends on its balance of sugars: the more fructose it contains, the runnier it will be; the more glucose, the thicker and more crystalline. Heating it will return any solidified honey to a pourable state, but bringing it to above a temperature of about 95 degrees can be detrimental to its many healthy attributes.
An incredibly nutrient-dense substance stored in wax combs (themselves a display of genius artistry), honey is a food source for the bee colony. It contains or is surrounded by other elements essential to this ecosystem, including propolis, an antimicrobial, antifungal and antibacterial resin used to protect the hive from unwanted organisms; small pellets of bee pollen, a protein source necessary during broodrearing; and royal jelly, a vitamin- and mineral-packed glandular secretion that nourishes both the larvae and the adult queen. Raw honey, which you will typically get at farmers markets and from small-scale beekeepers who prefer to minimally process their honey, has been separated from the comb and then simply filtered through a sieve to remove any unwanted debris. It is not subjected to the high-heat pasteurization and refinement of other honeys that are not labeled “raw” and so retains the beneficial enzymes, pollen and antioxidants that cannot withstand even moderate heat. In its raw state, honey is said to help fortify the immune system, heal wounds and counteract seasonal allergies, but its wonderful texture and flavor remain transcendent in many cooked preparations.
On the savory side, I often whisk together honey, vinegar and smoky pimentón and toss this with root vegetables before roasting them on a sheet pan. I’ll also use the same trio as a marinade for chicken wings. Honey is wonderful in a dish of Moroccan-style braised lamb and right at home in baked beans. I would even venture to say that some honey has an irresistible umami taste that pairs beautifully with other similarly funky foods, like pork, cheese and nuts. I love packing a jar full of freshly toasted hazelnuts and a few sprigs of thyme and covering it with a deep buckwheat varietal; its antimicrobial properties effectively turn this into a preserve. Nothing is better over a slab of Roquefort or a piece of grilled lamb—or pound cake or ice cream, for that matter.
On the sweet side, honey knows no bounds. A simple syrup made with honey instead of sugar is a staple in our house for stirring into cocktails or tea, even more compelling when it’s infused with ginger or lemongrass. The high note of an extraordinary dinner I had recently at Estela in New York City was the smooth and dreamy panna cotta, which chef Ignacio Mattos tops with a truly addictive, sweet-tart reduction of honey and vinegar and a sprinkling of dense and crunchy bee pollen.
Another talented and creative New York chef, Alex Raij, of Txikito, El Quinto Pino and La Vara, serves a honey-and-whey sorbet that is as unforgettable as it is simple. The milky tang of whey and the honey’s floral sweetness come together in a subtle and refreshing bite whose allure is amplified with hints of sea salt and orange flower water. With its featherweight frostiness—and the purported digestive properties of whey—this sorbet makes an excellent finish to a hearty meal. Not familiar with whey? It’s the yellowish, watery liquid that separates from the solids when milk curdles. You can initiate this process with rennet or with something acidic, like lemon or vinegar. (Hang the curds in a cheesecloth bag and they will drip more whey (the solids can be pressed into a firm white cheese; or you may be able to coax your local cheesemaker into donating some of their whey to your culinary cause, they usually have more than they can handle.)
Entranced by the delectable fall wildflower honey from upstate purveyor Catskill Provisions, I wanted to find a way to capitalize on its umami undertones. As fate would have it, I had on hand a stash of local black walnuts, also a rich repository of savory glutamates. I thought these could be paired in a version of the sweet and chewy caramels I make every holiday season. After a few failed attempts, I developed a very successful combination of honey, maple syrup, butter and cream that is the perfect showcase for the deep flavors of the honey and the winey complexity of the toasted nuts. A sprinkling of flaky sea salt is the ultimate crackling garnish for a treat that is infused with what naturalist and forager Euell Gibbons called “that wild taste.” It will give you quite a buzz.