First off, the honey you buy in the supermarkets, at least here in the States, is usually clover honey. So when one thinks of ‘honey’ and how it tastes, what one is usually thinking of is ‘clover honey’. Why make this distinction?
Because honey comes in hundreds of flavors, and its taste is dependant on several variables, incuding the flower from which the bees have drawn the nectar. There is a vast difference between clover honey (which is good on breads and crumpets and in teas) and, say, buckwheat honey. Where clover honey (the kind often found in those darling plastic bears) is light and subtle, buckwheat honey is dark, sweet, rich, and almost bitter. The darker honeys are often best served in baked dishes, like for glazing ham or even braising lamb.
But there’s more to it than that. The location of where the honey is culled from also plays a big part. The example used by those fine folks at Zingerman’s is “thyme honey from Sicily, for example, is more crystalline in texture than its Greek counterpart.”
Be careful as well when purchasing these varital honeys, as some companies make what’s known as “infused” honeys, where they manually add a specific flavor to the honey. In my searches, I’ve seen vanilla, cherry and blueberry, but have avoided them, as these are not the floral flavors that most natural honeys derive their characteristics, but rather man-made flavored honeys. There’s nothing wrong with these honeys, but there are about as natural a honey as a mochacinno is natural a coffee.
I currently have a dozen or so honeys on my shelf, costing in range from a dollar or twom, to one jar that reached a little over eight bucks. I have a dark, rich Buckwheat to a light and sweet Fireweed (which is indiginous to the Pac NW). The Cranberry isn’t bad, but the avocado blossom is a tad bitter for my taste.
My overall point is, a person can no more pick the best honey, than they can pick the best wine. There’s far too many variables for one to be able to do that. Each varietal honey can be used effectively in different contexts. However, if you want some basic rules of thumb:
- The darker the honey the richer the flavor. This doesn’t mean the it’s the most flavorful, although some lighter honeys are more nuanced. However, I did taste a wildflower honey which was a pale light yellow, but had more flavor than the orange-tinged clover honey we are all used to.
- Texture can play a part in taste. Some honeys are more crystallized than others. This will obviously give a different mouth feel as you ingest it.
- The way the honey is removed from the comb plays a part in the tast as well. The less heat applied to honey better. So if your shopping at local beekeeper’s shop, ask how the honey is extracted from the hive, and what temperature the heat source used was maintained at. It has to be hot enough to remove the honey, but not so hot that it breaks down (or burns) the glucose/sucrose.
Some of the most typical honeys will have the following tastes:
Avocado Honey – Molasses/Brown Sugar Flavor and Metallic/Iron Flavor
Buckwheat Honey – Barny, Medicinal, Green (unripened fruit) and Bitter Flavor, Pungent Aromatic (nose-burn), Molasses/Brown Sugar Aftertaste and Lingering Flavor
Clover Honey – High Sweet Flavor, Clover Nectar Flavor, Waxy Flavor
Orange Blossom Honey – Sweet, Flowery Perfume, Clover Nectar, and Beeswax Flavor.
Star Thistle Honey – High Anise Flavor, Low Sweet Flavor, Low Spicy Cinnamon Flavor, Low Waxy Flavor
Again, these are only a small sampling on the plethora of honeys that are out there. Head to your local Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s to try something different.