Which came first, the bees or the honey?
It’s a question worth asking Sue Doeden, a beekeeper who has written “Homemade With Honey” (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 146 pages, $17.95).
The golden liquid was the catalyst for Doeden, who stumbled onto an interest in the sweetener, one drizzle at a time, after a lifetime of not having it in her roster of standby ingredients. Blame it on the farmers market, where local beekeepers were selling their wares. Or maybe the supermarket, where mass-produced honey was sold.
Each influenced her, though not in the usual way. One steered her clear of the national processed blend (that would be the supermarket) while the other (farmers market) piqued her interest and taste buds with the extensive variety of local options. That she noticed the difference in flavors is not surprising for someone who spends her days teaching cooking and hosting a culinary segment on regional TV.
Not only did local honey win out, but so did the bees. For that she sings the praises of their keepers at the farmers market, veritable cheerleaders of the tiny creatures and vocal protectors of the environment. After many summers talking to beekeepers, Doeden wanted to give it a try.
She calls a wooded spot along the Mississippi River home, 8 miles outside of Bemidji. To her dismay, this location — lovely as it was — didn’t suit raising bees. Years passed from her early inspired conversations with beekeepers, and then an opportunity arose when a friend found some open land to raise vegetables.
Needless to say, Doeden made a beeline for the property. “I figured if it was good for vegetable growing, it was probably good for bees, too,” she said.
Indeed it was. Doeden and her friend started with two hives a few years ago. Now they have three. “It’s been a bit of a journey,” she said.
Now she’s become a cheerleader herself. “Every season I fall in love with the bees, which is something that has surprised me. I’ve never been into bugs very much. But I feel like I’m taking care of the bees and I want to protect them.”
Get her started talking about bees and you might be inclined to start a hive yourself.
“It’s just miraculous how they communicate with each other, and how hard they work to create the honey,” Doeden said. “They have two sets of wings and those wings work so hard. They actually die from exhaustion. They will fly up to 6 miles to gather nectar. They only live two to three weeks.
“They can gather nectar from more than a thousand flowers on each trip. It gives you a whole new outlook.”
Indeed it does. And that’s before she even gets to the kitchen and opens a bottle of the amber liquid that is sweeter than sugar.
“I realized there had to be more uses than drizzling honey on toast or in tea,” she said.
The how-to of honey
The general rule of substituting honey as a sweetener is to use less than you would for sugar. When baking — where substitutions are harder to do — start by using ⅔ cup honey for each cup of sugar.
But keep in mind that honey is a liquid, which makes a difference when baking. You will need to adjust the other liquid ingredients a bit. Just how much will depend on the recipe. One advantage of using honey in baking is that it works as a humectant, which means it helps absorbs moisture and keeps baked goods moist and fresh longer.
Using honey as a sweetener in nonbaked goods takes much less careful measuring. “Just keep tasting and adjust accordingly,” Doeden said. Its use goes beyond flavor, however, as honey acts as an emulsifier in salad dressings, holding oil and vinegar together.
When you’re shopping for honey that is not mass-produced, you probably will have many options for flavors, which vary according to where the bees are gathering pollen. The color will reflect the assertiveness of the flavor. Look for varieties from a light golden to a very dark amber, with deeper flavors reflected by the darker colors.
Then use the flavors that best fit your cooking and baking needs. “For most baking, use milder honey that doesn’t overpower it,” Doeden said.
The exception would be ginger or molasses cookies, which fairly shout out for a deep, dark flavor. “Think of buckwheat honey, which makes you think of molasses,” said Doeden, who also likes the darker honey in savory dishes with deeper flavor, such as a spicy Asian stir-fry with asparagus that’s in her book. Then again, she turns to a lighter honey for a shrimp dish, where the cook doesn’t want the honey flavor to be too robust.
As for storing honey, it’s easy. Just put it on the shelf. If it starts to crystallize, put the open container in some warm water to get the honey back to its liquid state. Some people, though, prefer the crystallized form.
“Honey lasts forever,” Doeden said. We need to make sure that the bees do, too.
How can you help?
• Include honeybee-friendly plants in your landscape (asters, goldenrod, sunflowers, dandelions and clover).
• Plant herbs (the blossoms of mint, oregano, thyme, marjoram and lavender draw bees to them).
• Plant a variety of flowers that cover the summer and fall with their blooms.
• Provide fresh, clean water for bees (a shallow basin with pebbles or twigs to rest on).
• Avoid pesticides on your lawn and garden.
• Use plants that haven’t been treated with neonicotinoid chemicals (ask at your nursery).
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste.