With the 10th Philadelphia Honey Festival on the agenda this weekend, the ancient amber sweetener looms large in the city’s collective culinary imagination. Sure, it’s a pantry staple, but when you learn about bees and the honey they make, you may be inspired to do more than dab it onto your cheese plate or stir it into your tea.
That goes double for hyper-local honey made by bees that forage in your own neighborhood, like those of Philadelphia Bee Co., whose honey is labeled not by floral varietal but by the bee’s resident zip code and the harvest season.
“Our honeys are more about location and time of year than any specific plant,” says owner Don Shump.
Spring honey is typically lighter in color and more delicate in flavor, while fall honey is darker and more robust — determined by the nectar the bees collect from flowering plants. You’ll find Shump’s jars for sale (8 ounces, $14) at several stops, including Greensgrow Farm in Kensington and Green Aisle Grocery on East Passyunk Avenue.
According to Shump, finding a great honey is all about where it’s made and how it’s processed. He recommends buying raw honey from a smaller producer for the best flavor. “Large honey packers ultra-pasteurize the honey, making it one-note, just sweet.” The less a honey is heated and filtered, the more dimensions of flavor it will have. Raw honeys might taste earthy, floral, fruity, medicinal, or mineral, not unlike fine wine.
One of Shump’s favorite uses for honey is to mix it — a full half-cup of the stuff — with ground beef, soy sauce, and warm spices — paprika, cinnamon, ginger, garlic — for an unusual hamburger. The sugars in the honey help caramelize the burger’s exterior and keep the meat tender and moist, too.
“I also love it on pancakes instead of syrup,” he adds.
Alex Bois, owner of Kensington’s Lost Bread Co., bakes with honey whenever he can. He buys his from local companies, including New Jersey-based Fruitwood Orchards and We Bee Brothers.
“One of my favorite things about honey is that it has a positive environmental impact. It’s one of the few ingredients that remains reasonably uncomplicated,” Bois says. “Beekeepers that sell honey at a premium are keeping bees alive.”
His favorite honey right now is the intense buckwheat varietal. Fruitwood Orchards works with beekeepers in agricultural regions like the Northwest, where nutty buckwheat, a common cover crop, is abundant. (Bees forage over about a 3-mile radius, so true varietal honey can only come from places where single crops grow over a larger area.) Fruitwood brings the raw honey to market here.
“Buckwheat honey tastes concentrated,” Bois says, “like the caramelized flavors of a reduced stock. It’s almost a little smoky.” It adds major flavor to his bread and granola.
Kiki Aranita, co-chef and co-owner of Rittenhouse’s Poi Dog, also favors honey over sugar when it comes to cooking. She grew up in Hawaii and Hong Kong, raised by a Chinese mother who always treated honey as medicine.
“My mother didn’t go for antibiotics. She thought the over-prescription of antibiotics to children in Hong Kong made their immune systems weak,” she says.
Today Aranita loves honey as much for its range of flavors. She collects it from different places when she travels and even uses it to sweeten her coffee. “I rarely keep sugar at home,” she says.
One of her favorite Hawaiian recipes is a sweet-savory marinade that’s used on proteins from Spam to chicken. Though it’s traditionally a mixture of soy sauce and sugar, she swaps in honey when she makes this dish at home.
“I always use a darker, more flavorful honey from New Bee Ranch to make this dish. It needs to be robust to stand up to the soy sauce,” she says. It lends complex flavor to an easy, weeknight-friendly chicken dinner.
“It’s just more flavorful than sugar, and it melts better than sugar,” she says. “Plus I’d rather use an ingredient that’s good for the body.”
Health also motivates Mike Joyce, chef de cuisine at Midtown Village’s Barbuzzo, to reach for the honey instead of refined sugar, both at home and at work. “I’ve been trying to eliminate highly processed foods from my diet, and it’s spilled over into my professional life,” he says.
Joyce enjoys the challenge of replacing white sugar with honey, and what he’s learned can help home cooks who want to adapt their own recipes.
“Honey is sweeter than sugar, so you need less of it,” he says. If a recipe calls for 1 cup sugar, Joyce suggests replacing it with ½ cup honey.
The other main factor to consider is moisture. Honey contains more water than sugar, so Joyce pulls back all other liquid ingredients by about 20%. “It takes some practice, but you can alter most recipes pretty easily,” he says. At the moment, he’s subbing honey into a whole-wheat olive oil cake — look for it on the menu at Barbuzzo this fall.
If you find your way to the Philadelphia Honey Festival this weekend, you might catch Don Shump sporting a bee beard, in which he places up to 15,000 bees on his face. It’s a fun spectacle, but the point is to show that bees aren’t dangerous or scary; they’re friends. Eating honey is fun, but the mission of the festival is to raise awareness about the importance of honey bees to our environment, says Kathleen May, a beekeeper and member of the festival committee.
“Many people still do not realize the great contribution honey bees make to ensuring a food supply for us all,” says May.