Cooking with honey

In anticipation of our own honey (Mike has built the top bar hive and we’ve ordered our first bees for spring delivery), I’ve begun experimenting with honey as a white sugar replacement. While there are recipes available that specifically use honey, I also wanted to convert our own tried and true recipes.

Because honey is about twice as sweet as sugar, the standard recommendation is to replace the given amount of sugar with one half to two-thirds amounts of honey. A recipe calling for 1 cup of sugar, therefore, would require only 1/2 cup to 2/3 cup honey. You also have to decrease the total amount of liquids by 1/5 to 1/4 because honey is an average of 18% water. (If you measure ingredients by weight, one cup of honey weighs 12 ounces.) To prevent over-browning in baked goods, add 1/2 tsp baking soda for every cup of honey and reduce the oven temperature by 25°F. Baked goods using honey are a bit moister and stay fresher longer. Depending on the recipe, you may or may not actually taste the honey.

My biggest challenge was to incorporate honey into my jams and jellies. Because I sell home preserves at our local farmers’ market, using our own honey would be much less expensive. While there is a lot of leeway with baked goods, I had to make sure that my jams and jellies were similar to sugar-sweetened ones. This included consistency (i.e., that it jelled properly), flavour (that the honey didn’t overpower the fruit taste) and sweetness. Until our crab apples become productive enough so I can make my own pectin, I use commercial pectin (Certo) in my preserves. Using the above conversions, I first adapted my recipe for wild grape jelly – because we have lots of wild grapes still frozen from last fall, I could experiment with this fruit. If the resulting jelly didn’t work out, I figured we could always use it in our homemade yogurt.

Despite my initial apprehension, the wild grape jelly was a success.  It took a few days for it to set in the jars, but physically it was indistinguishable from jelly made with sugar. My concern that the honey taste would dominate were laid to rest when Mike said if he didn’t know beforehand that the jelly was made with honey, he wouldn’t have known it. The sweetness of the jelly was also similar to other batches – it was neither sickening sweet or too tangy. This year we harvested the wild grapes later than last year so the fruit was sweeter, so I’m not sure how that affected the taste, but that is always a possibility even when you cook with sugar. Just as homemade spaghetti sauce is never exactly the same twice, neither is jam or jelly. That is the risk – and beauty – of homemade preserves. If you want consistency, buy a commercial product (although I have to admit I still can’t figure out how Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup still tastes the same after all these years!)

This coming season, I will continue to experiment with adapting my jam and jelly recipes as well as trying recipes I have found that specify honey as a sweetener. In the meantime, here is my recipe for wild grape jelly.

Wild Grape Jelly with Honey

You don’t have to include step 4, but after the first “pressing”, there’s still a lot of juice left in the grapes, so it’s a shame to waste it. Depending on the grapes, you can even try a third pressing to use as juice for drinking. Yields 6 250 ml (1/2 pint) jars.

3 pounds or approximately 6 cups wild grapes (remove from branches, but don’t worry about attached stems)
3 cups water
1 pkg 3 oz/57g Certo powder
3 cups honey
1 tsp butter (or margarine)

1. Measure out honey; set aside.

2. Put grapes and water in a large pot. Bring to a boil and boil for 10 minutes until grapes are soft. Mash with a potato masher to release juice (do not process in food processor or blender).

3. Place cooked grapes in a dampened jelly bag or a colander lined with a double thickness of cheesecloth and drain for 2-12 hours (if draining for shorter time, squeeze out juice by hand or with the back of a large spoon). You should have about 3-1/2 cups juice. Reserve this juice.

4. Re-cook grapes from jelly bag/colander in an additional 3 cups water. Repeat draining process. You should end up with another 3-1/2 cups juice.

5. Add this second pressing to the first amount of juice. If necessary, add water to make a combined total of 6-1/2 cups juice. Mix well. Measure out 3-1/4 cups juice for one recipe of jelly. Reserve the remaining 3-1/4 cups juice for a second batch of jelly (or sweeten and drink the juice). Do NOT double the recipe – it will not cook properly.

6. Put 3-1/4 cups juice in large pot and add Certo and butter (to reduce foaming).

7. Stirring, bring to a boil and add honey all at once. Boil hard for 1 minute.

8. Remove from heat. Skim off any foam and place in sterilized jars with two-piece lids. Process in a boiling water bath for 5 minutes.

9. Allow to sit for minimum of 48 hours to properly set.

If you’ve never made jam or jelly before, I highly recommend Jams, Preserves, Marmalades and Jellies for excellent detailed instructions and photos.

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