by Sebastien van HeyningenJanuary 15, 2020
Honey. This bee-made sweetener is a staple in every kitchen.
Someone told me once that “honey never goes bad.” But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a right way to store it.
Before we dive into how to keep your honey fresh, we must first examine what this beloved sweetener actually is and how it’s made.
What Is Honey, and How is it Made?
Simply put, honey is food that bees put away for the winter. When flower nectar is less abundant and conditions difficult for bees to navigate, they fill their bellies with this homemade meal.
Like most sweeteners, honey is largely made up of carbohydrates. About 82% of honey is carbs, and most of that is derived from fructose and glucose. So it makes sense that it is used as a sweetener.
But it’s not just those simple, high concentrations of sugars. Honey is also made up of water, vitamins, antioxidants, enzymes and minerals. You can find a treasure trove of valuable vitamins and minerals in honey: potassium, chlorine, sulfur, calcium, sodium, phosphorus, magnesium, silica, iron, manganese, copper, B6, thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid and niacin — these don’t even exhaust the entire list!
Starting from the nectar of flowers, these parts come together to make the thick sticky golden liquid that we all love. The process to get there involves harvesting, regurgitation, enzymatic activity from the bee and water evaporation.
Bees have a special stomach called the honey crop designed to mix the nectar with enzymes that transform its chemical composition and pH, making it more suitable for long-term storage. When the forager bee returns to the beehive, it transfers the processed nectar to house bees through regurgitation.
This transfer is repeated over and over for about 20 minutes. Then the house bees drop the (almost) honey into a honeycomb and begin drying it out by fanning it with their wings. Dehydrating the honey further prepares it for preservation, and the low water content makes it difficult for bacteria to grow.
Once the honey is dry enough, the bee secretes liquid from its abdomen to seal the comb. This substance eventually hardens into beeswax, locking the dried honey away for optimal storage conditions.
That finished product is what we consider “raw honey.” And it’s built to last. But once the bee finishes the production process, it’s up to you to store your honey properly and keep it fresh.
How to Store Honey, The Right Way
Believe it or not, honey has an incredibly long shelf life. If stored properly, it can essentially stay good for decades, sometimes even longer. Primarily made up of sugars, it’s known as one of the most natural stable foods out there. According to the National Honey Board, most honey products have an expiration date or “best by” date of around two years.
The shelf life printed on the jar is primarily done for practical purposes, specifically because certain storage conditions can make honey vulnerable to physical and chemical changes. However, if the honey is packaged and stored properly, it can retain its freshness for centuries! Here are some helpful honey storage tips.
Store your honey in an air-tight glass jar located in a cool dry area away from the sun or any heat-producing appliances in your kitchen. When honey is exposed to excessive sunlight or high temperatures, it can darken in color and lose its aroma and fresh flavor. The best location to store honey is in the kitchen pantry at a temperature ranging between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. You should NOT store honey in the fridge or anywhere in the kitchen where it will be exposed to high temperatures.
The jar must be air-tight to keep the water content of the honey stable and away from either crystallization (not enough water) or fermentation (too much water). If you introduce even a minuscule amount of moisture content to the honey, it can cause fermentation and lower the quality of your honey.
In an ideal situation, you should store honey in the original jar it came in. If you need a new storage container, we recommend you store it in an air-tight glass jar (such as a mason jar), because some plastics will still allow water loss and even leach chemicals into your honey. HDPE plastic is a good alternative if you do not have a glass option. Stainless steel containers are OK for bulk long-term storage, but NEVER store your honey in other metals because the corrosion will contaminate it.
What If the Honey Crystallizes?
Even if stored perfectly, it’s possible that honey crystallizes and becomes cloudy if it is left out over time or introduced to cold temperatures. That’s OK. It’s perfectly normal for honey to crystallize. It hasn’t gone bad or deteriorated in quality. Crystallization is actually a sign of pure honey. You’ve got the real stuff.
If you don’t like the look or texture of raw preserved honey, just throw your mason jar onto the counter so that the sun hits it. The sun exposure will liquefy the crystallized raw honey without damaging the enzymes locked within.
If you’re lacking in natural light, or just want usable honey a bit faster than the sun can provide, then there are other options. Drop the honey container into some hot water until the crystals disappear. But be careful not to leave it in too long! You may accidentally pasteurize your honey and kill the nutrients locked inside.
Fortunately, honey can reach a temperature of 120 Farhenheit and still be considered raw. Like water, which boils at 212 Farhenheit, there is a lot of room for error.
If you don’t mind killing the nutrients and enzymes in honey that is crystallized, then you can bring the heat up on that simmering water. But at that point, you’re simply converting your raw honey into pasteurized honey, and you’re better off buying processed honey from the start.
For those who would rather avoid using the stovetop method, you can also place honey that is crystallized into a bowl of warm water, though that method will likely take longer to liquefy the honey. Don’t put it in the microwave, as this environment can get hot quickly and is difficult to control.
To prevent honey from being crystallized altogether, you can technically store honey in the freezer and thaw it when you’re ready to use it. Keep in mind that honey expands when it’s frozen, so make sure there’s room in the container or jar to account for that growth. When you’re ready to thaw it out, simply leave it on the kitchen counter at room temperature.
Processed Honey vs Raw Honey
Aside from how you store honey, another important factor is whether it is processed or raw.
If you’re unfamiliar with pasteurization, it’s the process of treating food products with heat (usually less than 212 degrees Fahrenheit) to remove pathogens and extend shelf life. Commonly pasteurized items are milk, fruit juices, beer, syrup and canned goods. For each of these goods, you can find an argument for and against pasteurization.
To pasteurize honey, heat it at 158 degrees Fahrenheit and then rapidly cool it. This process, although delivering aesthetically pleasing honey, destroys all of the beneficial bacteria, enzymes, pollen, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals found in raw honey.
Even processed honey has its quirks when it comes to storage. Keep your processed honey at room temperature (64-75 degrees), or freeze it for long-term storage. Heat damage to honey is cumulative, and processed honey has already been heated extensively.
Do your best to keep it cool. At least you don’t have to worry about crystallization!
How to Store Honey: A Short and Sweet Conclusion
When you buy a fresh jar of honey, the storage solution is effortless and rather straightforward. Place your jar in your kitchen cabinet or pantry, keep it away from sunlight and heat, and make sure the lid is tightly sealed. If you follow these simple steps, your honey should last you a lifetime!