Oh no – you’ve got a batch of Oil Seed Rape or Ivy honey that’s set like rock, are you going to have to dump the lot…?
No! Because you can make it into deliciously smooth soft set honey, hurrah!
When I started in beekeeping, the process of making soft set was rather like black magic – if I followed the instructions it mostly worked – but I didn’t really know why, so without further ado, here’s what I’ve learned.
Basically, it’s all about trying to wrangle the sugar crystals – yup, science is your friend
- Honey is typically made up of: –
- 13% – 20% water
- around 76% fructose & glucose (both ‘simple sugars’ that have the same chemical formula but a different arrangement of atoms, which means fructose tastes much sweeter than glucose)
- sucrose & other ‘complex sugars’, plus elements such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, organic acids, pollen, fragrance and flavour compounds either left over from the nectar or put there by the bees.
The actual balance depends on the sources of the nectar collected by your bees
- When it’s cold, water will only dissolve a certain amount of sugar, but heating allows more sugar to be dissolved – leading the water to be what’s called ‘supersaturated’. In the hive, the bees ripen the nectar into honey at a temperature of 35 – 36ºC. They continue the process until they can’t extract any more water and there’s just enough in there to keep the sugars in solution, then they cap.
Glucose is the least soluble of the two major sugars and tends to precipitate out of the honey, changing it to a more stable saturated state. The effect of this separation is that the honey crystallises into a semi-solid state. The physical process of crystallisation occurs when long chains of glucose are broken down. The glucose molecules start sticking to one another – usually around a speck of dust or pollen or air bubble, and these glucose crystals then fall to the bottom of the jar as can be seen in the left-hand jar sitting in a warming cabinet.
- high glucose honeys like oil seed rape or ivy will crystallise readily.
- high fructose honeys like sage or acacia are much more reluctant to crystallise.
3. The formation of crystals is like rigid scaffolding and all the crystals, whether coarse or fine, link to give a rigid crystalline structure – which is why naturally set honey becomes so spoon-bendingly hard!
- With soft set honey, the crystals still remain but the rigid crystal to crystal linkage has been physically broken by stirring.
- Glucose crystals are naturally white and as a consequence, honey will lighten in colour as it granulates.
- It’s much harder work to try and force high fructose honey to form crystals. So, to test the balance of fructose to glucose in your honey, spin it into storage buckets after extraction and wait for 3 months to see what happens. If it crystallises, then you know there’s more glucose and it’s suitable for making into soft set.
- When they set, some honeys form a fine crystal & some coarse but it’s difficult to tell in advance. To check which you have, put a small spoonful of the crystallised honey in your mouth – you can feel the coarse crystals on your tongue.
- Set honeys that have been heated to re-liquify them are almost always coarse when they re-crystallise. This is because after heating, very few crystals remain to trigger or initiate new crystal growth and so they can grow without competition from other crystal nuclei, creating coarse globules of crunchy crystals in the honey.
So that’s the sciency stuff covered which will hopefully help you understand why you’re following the process below to create soft set honey!
As you can’t guarantee whether you’ll end up with coarse or fine crystals when your honey sets naturally, you have two possible options available to control the soft set process: –
- If your honey has granulated with coarse crystals
- You need to ‘seed’ it with honey that you know has a fine crystal size, so these are the dominant crystals to grow. The seed should be a 1:10 ratio eg. 3lb of seed to 30lb liquified honey.
- If you’ve not got seed stock with a suitable fine consistency you need to make, borrow or buy some.
MAKE using a pestle and mortar by grinding hard set crystallised honey in small batches until it doesn’t feel grainy on your tongue with the consistency of thick toothpaste.
BORROW from another beekeeper who has something suitable & return the same amount after you’ve made your batch
BUY from a shop (make sure it’s as local as you can get & good quality!)
- Re-liquify your granulated honey to about 50ºC – check regularly as you don’t want to heat any longer than necessary but you do need to ensure that all the crystals are gone & the temperature is high enough so that the water present can hold all the sugar in suspension
- Allow to cool to about 30ºC which is where crystals are likely to start forming
- At the same time, warm your seed honey only until it’s soft enough to mix. By keeping the temperature below about 40ºC the all-important fine crystal structure of the seed honey will not be destroyed.
- ** Mix both together gently but thoroughly. You need to completely disperse the fine seed stock crystals throughout the mix. To do this you can use a spoon, a big masher, a stainless-steel corkscrew and drill, or a dedicated machine. It’s important to avoid mixing in air to avoid frosting in your final product.
- As the honey cools (ideally to around 18ºC), mix it every 12 hours or so to keep the crystal bonds from forming. The honey will get increasingly hard to mix and, within a week or less, become soft set.
- Rewarm so you can jar – job done, the soft set honey will retain the fine crystal structure and not set solid.
- If your honey has granulated with fine crystals
- Warm it just enough to soften
- Go to ** above
Paul was recently kind enough to let me use his lovely Lyson soft set machine that controls the heating and cooling and mixing for you – what a joy! He also let me use his dedicated warming cabinet to liquify my rock solid OSR crop from spring, plus the balance of my summer crop which was already showing signs of starting to granulate. The photos below show the mixing just after the seed had been added, then the final product being decanted into a tank for jarring later.
So there you have it – a guide to soft set honey, hope you enjoyed!
Cheers Janet McKenzie