Recently we had a nice dish that used honey as a sweetener. The dish was Vegetables with Spicy Honey Peanut Sauce and was quite delicious. It was actually quite surprising how sweet it was considering how little honey was actually in the dish. That got me to thinking maybe it would be possible to substitute Honey for Sugar in other dishes. So I started doing research on what would be involved in doing just that.
Well, the thought of cooking with honey, as it turns out, is actually somewhat controversial. In fact to some it is downright offensive. Who would have guessed? The strongest objection that I read (and can agree with) is that if you heat honey you alter its makeup and in the process destroy some of its unique flavor profile and some of its other qualities including much of its antioxidant content. Some sites suggest using other natural sugars which they claim are more stable such as evaporated cane juice or maple syrup.
Without trying to get into a debate; wouldn’t you have to agree that the whole purpose of cooking is to alter food, especially if you are talking about baking? Take as an example leavening: It is a chemical process. In some cases you use a live culture to convert sugar to bubbles in the batter. In other cases the process involves using an acid and an alkali to do the same. Regardless you have altered the properties of the original ingredients in favor of a new and ostensibly more desirable quality.
So while I agree honey is probably best used raw for its many health benefits (except in the case of infants due to the risk of botulism), I am willing to accept that cooking with it will alter it. After all, the reason I originally started looking into using it was how sweet that dish was relative to the amount of honey used. So I started wondering: Could I use honey and end up with a lower calorie dish? Table sugar is a highly processed product, generally honey isn’t. In fact, arguably, honey shouldn’t be processed at all. There is plenty of evidence that all of the processed foods that we eat are bad for you. So could it be that using honey, even if it is cooked, would produce a healthier dish?
So could I cook with honey and end up with a lower calorie dish? Possibly, yes.
I have to pause here and state I am not a food scientist nor am I a dietitian. In fact I am really just blogging what I have found on numerous other sites and really not qualified to make any health recommendations.
That said. It seems reasonable that if you use less honey than sugar you would end up with fewer calories. Why, because, by weight they have the same number of calories, 4 calories per gram. By teaspoon, however, honey is more caloric at 22 calories versus 16 for table sugar. That is a little more than 1/3 more calories. But since you use less you can end up with fewer calories.
One of the advantages of table sugar is the fact that it is so highly refined. WHAT, yes I said that! When something is refined down to a single molecule (sucrose) then you have a consistent product. That isn’t true with honey and that is the beauty of it too. Honey differs in flavor and sweetness by location and season. That is why you will see recommendation for using anywhere from ½ to ¾ as much honey as you would sugar. At ½ clearly you would have fewer calories in the end product. At ¾ you would have more calories, about 1/2 calorie.
Even if there are the same number of calories in the end product would it be “healthier”? Arguably, yes.
Unlike sugar which has all vitamins and minerals stripped away during processing honey retains all of its vitamins, minerals, etc.. Because of that according to some nutrition experts it can even aid digestion. Research is also being done on the antioxidant levels of honey. However, as noted earlier the process of heating does impact those ‘nutrients’ For instance honey contains vitamin C which is vulnerable to heat as are other vitamins. Also it seems that certain vitamins are even effected by the materials they come into contact with. i.e. B12 doesn’t like being in contact with iron or copper. So while there are clearly caveats, there is potential there for honey to produce a more healthy product than could be achieved with table sugar.
Another interesting factor to consider when looking at using honey is the very make up of the sugars themselves. Honey and table sugar actually contain the same basic sugars. Table sugar (sucrose) has glucose and fructose as does honey. In honey they are individual units whereas in sucrose they are chemically bonded. It is this, is suspect (again I’m not a food scientist), that means you have to adjust cooking temperatures when using honey. The caramelization temperature for fructose is 230F (110C), whereas glucose and sucrose caramelize at 320F (160C). That means if you use honey you will have to cook at a lower temperature quite likely for a longer time. Low and slow is the key phrase here.
To be honest I haven’t done anything with this yet. It simply sparked my interest and I thought I would capture my notes here and share.
Below you will find a greatly consolidated list of facts I’ve culled from the internet so far:
Facts about cooking with honey:
Honey is sweeter than table sugar. Use only half to three quarters as much honey as you would sugar.
Honey is about 18 percent water, reduce the liquids in your recipe accordingly.
If there are no liquids, add two tablespoons [30 ml] of flour per cup [200 ml] of honey.
Honey is slightly acidic to neutralize it add one half teaspoon [2 ml] of baking soda per cup [200 ml] of honey
Honey caramelized and burns more quickly reduce the temperature of your oven by 25 degrees Fahrenheit [15°C] and cook longer if needed.