Honey is a timeless and relevant ingredient. It is so much more than simply a natural sweetener, as honey adds varied flavors, colors and even functionality to meat and poultry by serving as a humectant and binder.
Honey’s advantage is its marketability, a story that has always started with the honey bee. And that story complements today’s clean-label formulating trend, with marketers bringing honey to the front of the package to clearly communicate to consumers its inclusion in a packaged food.
Formulators and culinary specialists appreciate that all honey is not created equal. In fact, honey varies in color, flavor and even consistency, based on the flower from which worker bees extract nectar that eventually becomes honey. The colors of honey form a continuous range from water white to dark amber. Light-colored honey typically has a mild flavor, while a darker color is more intense.
Liquid honey is the most common ingredient form. It is extracted from the honeycomb by centrifugal force, gravity or straining and is typically free of visible crystals. There’s also dried honey, which is derived from pure liquid honey and will include processing aids and other ingredients. The honey is dried to a low-moisture content. This gets converted to free-flowing powders, flakes or granules with a minimum 50 percent pure honey content.
There are important considerations when working with honey in product development. This is because honey can be as much as 1.5 times sweeter than sugar, on a dry basis. Honey also contains enzymes that can break down other ingredients in a formulation, impacting the finished product.
The amino acids in honey can elevate the flavor intensity of spices and herbs, which is why honey is often used in sauces and marinades. Honey will also speed up the Maillard reaction, so time and temperature often need to be adjusted when applied topically to baked meats and poultry.
With spicy foods, honey adds just enough sweetness to mellow out the initial heat, while with some fruit flavors, honey balances floral notes. In high-protein foods, especially when the protein comes from plants, honey can mask undesirable green, beany off flavors.
“With more than 300 varietals of honey in the US alone, honey is the type of ingredient that deserves to be used in every type of dish,” according to Rob Corliss, a three-time James Beard House guest chef.
He suggests basting meat and poultry prior to grilling to accent the savory notes with robust sweetness and prevent scorching.
The National Honey Board, Firestone, Colorado, recommends adding honey to brine to provide flavor and some color to pork or poultry. To add an extra layer of flavor to glazes — for everything from chicken wings to pork tenderloin — substitute honey for some or all of the other sweetener or thickener. The honey will also contribute desirable color without burning.
Minneapolis-based Mighty Spark Food Co., features honey as a characterizing flavor in its Honey and Jalapeño Chicken Snack Stick. Honey’s role in the company’s new Corn, Black Bean and Poblano Meat-Reduced Chicken Patties is subtler, with just a touch added to help round out the complexity of the ingredient matrix.
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