Throughout history and around the world, people have collected honey and used it both as a sweetener and medicinally. Modern honey connoisseurs describe varietals much in the same way a wine sommelier does, linking flavor attributes to its place of origin and the source of its nectar. From clover—the most common source of mass-produced honey—to wildflower, orange blossom, eucalyptus, sage, and tupelo, raw honey showcases its source. Unlike large-scale commercial honey pasteurized to extend its shelf-life, raw honey retains all of the natural enzymes and distinguishing flavors.
By seeking out raw honey produced in small batches instead of large-scale production honey, you help honeybees by creating a financial incentive for beekeepers.
What Is Raw Honey?
The U.S. government does not officially define raw honey, but it's generally recognized as honey that exists as it did in the hive, without being filtered or pasteurized. Honey marketed as unpasteurized may or may not be filtered.
Honey, whether raw or pasteurized, naturally resists the growth of bacteria and other dangerous organisms because of its low moisture content and high acidity. However, yeast spores that naturally exist in the nectar used to produce honey can multiply and cause fermentation, which, while not dangerous, can affect the flavor. Some commercial producers choose to pasteurize their products, which kills any lingering yeast. It also keeps honey from crystallizing as quickly.
How to Use Raw Honey
Take advantage of raw honey's flavor by serving it simply, drizzled over plain yogurt or spread on whole grain toast. You can also use it in beverages, in a meat marinade or salad dressing, and generally in any application that calls for honey without distinguishing a variety. Just keep in mind that all honey burns easily and that high heat can destroy the enzymes and weaken the nutritional profile of raw honey.
What Does It Taste Like?
Raw honey tends to have a more complex flavor than pasteurized honey. Different varieties taste like the nectar the bees feasted on before producing the honey, with some light and sweet and others dark and robust.
Recipes With Raw Honey
Try using raw honey in recipes that showcase the sweetener. The flavor nuances of raw honey, which reflect the source of the nectar, can be altered by heat, but the sweetness remains.
Where to Buy Raw Honey
When you buy local honey from small beekeepers, you're almost always buying "raw honey." If you're lucky enough to have a honey producer at your farmers market, that's a great source (some farmers keep hives and sell the honey alongside their other goods).
Specialty stores, health food stores, co-ops, and other smaller food stores usually carry raw honey, too. Depending on where you live, larger markets and grocery stores may sell raw honey; read labels carefully and make sure it says either "raw" or "unpasteurized." In short, any place featuring locally sourced foods is likely to have some raw honey for sale.
Because of its chemical composition, honey doesn't go bad, so it generally has an indefinite shelf-life, although commercial brands display a best-by date. Moisture and light can cause honey to crystallize and heat causes it to liquefy, but in either case, it's still safe to eat. Honey stores best for extended periods tightly sealed in a dark pantry or cabinet. Liquid honey stays syrupy better in a warmer location, such as a cabinet near the stove. Creamed or whipped honey should be stored in a cooler spot. You can put it in the refrigerator, but it will become hard to use.
If your raw honey does get grainy, you can "liquify" it again by letting the jar sit in a bowl of warm water until the sugar crystals dissolve. Note that this is but a temporary solution; once crystallized, honey quickly returns to that state as it cools.
Nutrition and Benefits
A 1-tablespoon serving of honey contains about 60 calories and 17 grams of natural sugar. It also contains some vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and antioxidants, although the nutritional profile can vary widely depending on the type of flowers the bees used in production. Honey should not be given to children younger than age 1 because of the risk for infant botulism, a rare but potentially fatal illness caused by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, which can thrive in the low oxygen environment of honey. The spores usually don't cause problems for children older than 1 or adults, though.
There are more than 300 kinds of honey marketed in the United States. You can buy raw honey still in the edible comb, as a liquid, crystallized, creamed, or whipped. Look for "raw" or "unpasteurized" on the label; "pure" simply means no added ingredients, so the term can be applied to pasteurized honey too.
A common home remedy recommends eating local honey to alleviate seasonal allergy symptoms, but no scientific studies have shown that advice to be beneficial. Honey often gets credited with being a healthier choice than sugar, but it's a sweetener just the same and like sugar, it should be consumed in moderation.