This page is based on an article by well-known British beekeeper Ken Basterfield which appeared in the BBKA News in February 2014. The article aimed to clarify the terminology and process of producing fine, soft set honey. Make sure you watch Louise’s practical demonstration too. Honey processing with Louise.
Soft set honey is a version of set honey that’s had its crystalline nature broken-up by mashing, to give a spreadable texture, similar to butter or margarine spreads. It is sometimes referred to as creamed honey. Many customers prefer the smooth, fine texture of soft set honey which cannot be guaranteed with natural setting.
This is an optional process which forces a ‘willing’ honey to granulate (set) with fine crystals and a smooth texture.
If you want customers to return to your product, it must sell itself by taste, appearance and texture. Naturally set honey is unattractive to some customers for a number of reasons;
• it can be ‘spoon-bendingly’ hard (Dan’s expression) and has to be chipped out of the jar #
• On setting (granulating) in the jar, the honey sometimes shrinks in volume and retreats from the wall of the jar, leaving frosted areas which do not encourage confidence in the wholesomeness of the product.
• The granulated texture is usually uncontrolled and can be coarse and irregular rather than fine and smooth in texture.
Soft set honey is smooth and fine and can be spread thickly and easily with a knife. That means it’ll be eaten quickly and a re-order should soon follow!
Granulation, a natural process
Honey is produced by bees from nectar by, among other things, reducing the water content to less than 20%. This is done in the hive at about 35c. The bees remove excess water content to preserve the honey and to prevent fermentation. There should be no surplus of water in fully ripened honey, just enough to keep the sugars in solution. That’s why it’s strongly recommended to harvest only fully capped honey; uncapped honey may not be fully ripened.
The solution of sugars in water in fully ripened honey is near to full saturation with no spare water, hence no yeast spoilage. Clever little bees!
As honey cools, when taken from the hive, whether on the comb or in your settling tank or jars, it becomes fully saturated. That means there’s not enough water to keep the sugars in solution. It becomes physically unstable. The honey stabilises itself by crystallising some or all of the sugars. Other terms for crystallising are granulating or setting.
The principal sugars in honey are fructose and glucose and glucose is less soluble than fructose. Therefore, honeys that are higher in glucose will crystallise rapidly to a granular nature. Anyone living near Oil Seed Rape who’s been beekeeping for more than a year, can easily guess which sugar predominates in that crop!
The formation of crystals is like the construction of a builder’s scaffold; all the crystals link to form a rigid crystalline structure which is why naturally set honey becomes so hard.
With soft set honey the crystals still remain, but the rigid crystal-to-crystal linkage is broken by stirring. To be able to stir the set honey, you need to warm it enough to soften the linking.
The soft set process
The soft set process is easy to master. To convince yourself of this, try the following experiment.
• Leave the metal lid on and place a jar of naturally set honey in your microwave. Leaving the lid on forces the microwaves down the middle of the jar rather than just heating the top of it. And dismiss the myth instantly, you won’t get flashes or sparks on the metal lid!
• Heat on full power for twenty seconds to soften the contents. Twenty seconds is not long enough to dissolve it to liquid honey.
• Stir the honey with a spoon to break-up the crystalline structure. You may need to microwave for a further twenty seconds and stir again.
What you have produced is soft set honey. It may be coarse crystalline or it may be fine but it will remain soft. If you haven’t already done so, watch Louise’s video on Processing honey.
This is an optional process which ensures your soft set honey has a fine, smooth texture. It’s only necessary to correct a naturally coarse textured set honey. Seeding does not force the honey to granulate, it merely determines the crystal size if the honey is high in glucose and would naturally be inclined to granulate.
3lbs (1.36 kg) of fine grained, set honey will seed a 30lb (13.6 kg) bucket of liquified honey, a 10% ratio.
How can you tell if your honey is likely to granulate?
It’s easy to determine whether or not your honey is likely to granulate. Put it into 30lb buckets after extraction, wait for three months and see which buckets have granulated. If it has not granulated, or has only partially granulated, process it as clear honey.
If your honey has granulated with fine crystals, seeding is unnecessary. It’s ready for the soft set process; the left-hand process shown below. If however, it has granulated with large, coarse crystals, it will need to be reliquified and seeded with fine crystal honey as shown below in the right-hand pathway.
Is your bucket of honey finely or coarsely granulated?
Proceed to soft set processing as described below.
Start with the seeding process
* seeding (photo below)
* resetting, then check consistency
The seeding process
• Reliquify the 30lb bucket of honey in a warming cabinet if you have one. The ideal temperature to liquify is 60c. The process should take approximately 5 hours. You can also warm honey in food grade plastic buckets overnight in your domestic oven. The ideal temperature is 50c.
If you opt to use your oven, check the temperature with a thermometer beforehand. The type of thermometer used for tropical fish tanks is ideal and these can be acquired easily and cheaply. Whichever way you do it, check the honey regularly, as you don’t want to heat your honey longer than necessary.
• Allow the bucket to cool to 30c.
• Warm 3lbs (1.36kg) of fine set honey in your microwave as the seed. Leave the metal lid on and warm just enough to soften (but not liquify) the honey.
• Thoroughly mix the soft set honey into the bucket. There are special tools available for this purpose (see photos) or you can use a large catering-size potato masher. Again, watch Louise’s video which shows a practical demonstration of the tools available.
• Allow the honey to reset. This usually takes about three weeks and gives a hard-set, fine grained honey.
• Continue with the soft set process.
30lb bucket-scale soft set processing
• Warm the bucket of fine set honey at 40c for approximately eight hours or until it’s soft but not runny. You can test this by gently squeezing the bucket sides.
• cut the honey with a pallet knife to ease mashing.
• Macerate with honey creamer or a large, catering-size potato masher to break-up lumps.
• Put into jars immediately.
# Naturally set honey which has granulated can be returned to its liquid form by loosening the lid and standing the jar in hot water. Alternatively, warm gently in short bursts using a microwave oven set to the lowest power.