How (and why) to Substitute Sugar with Honey in Your Cooking

Originally published on SBS.

Honey is one of those brilliant, multifaceted food products. Bonus: it has an eternal shelf life.

Julian Wolfhagen is a beekeeper and the founder of The Tasmanian Honey Company. After more than 40 years in the industry, he’s still passionate about making honey.

“Every culture holds honey in a very reverential place and that’s because of the health that it brings,” Wolfhagen tells SBS Food. “It’s high in antioxidants, it has a low GI, which makes it quite suitable for certain types of diabetics. It also has all sorts of probiotic values so it’s pretty good for gut health. And it’s industrious.”

Honey can be used in baking, to make sauces and marinate vegetables and proteins. Wolfhagen personally uses a fair share of honey in his cooking.

“Generally honey is quite adaptable and can be used almost anywhere you’re using sugar. The only caveat is that is the moisture content of honey,” he says, so you may have to cut back other moisture content in whatever you’re cooking.

“The apparent sweetness of honey is higher than sucrose, or normal sugar, so you can also cut back the total quantity of sugar you use,” he explains.

The other great thing about using honey is that (like sugar) it’s hygroscopic, he says, “meaning it absorbs moisture from the atmosphere. If you’re using it for baking, in cakes or breads, it keeps things permanently sticky.”

One of Wolfhagen’s favourite recipes is a panna cotta with leatherwood honey. “Leatherwood has a spicy flavour that’s quite unique and goes well particularly well with dairy … you should only use it if you want that flavour to come through.”

Honey also goes well with pome fruits (apples and pears); it’s good for poaching, glazing and baking. It’s also suitable for browning food. “But be mindful the enzymes in honey have the potential to burn,” he adds.

When deciding what honey to use, it really depends on what you’re cooking. “If you just want some sweetness, you’d go for what is typically a light-coloured honey, like a clover or meadow honey. For a fruity kind of honey, perhaps something with a eucalypt base like yellow-box honey.”

If you’re looking for a knockout appetiser, try the trusted combination of honey and cheese. Nigel Ward, head chef at the Merivale Group’s flagship restaurant Uccello in Sydney, says he uses either a “young sheep’s milk pecorino, which might be a little bit hard to come by, or some Roman pecorino”. He batters the cheese in a mixture of egg, flour, a pinch of salt and some sparkling water. 

“Dip the cheese in, chuck it in the oil, and throw some herbs with it,” Ward says. He mixes honey, oregano and chilli and crowns the cheese with the sweet and aromatic mixture.

Onto mains. Host of SBS’ The Cook Up Adam Liaw’s go-to traybake dish is chilli honey-baked chicken, which is “great for a weeknight family dinner”. Adam Liaw blitzes honey, garlic, ginger, onion, coriander, chilli sauce and oil in a blender and uses this to marinate the chicken. 

“Then I’ll just put it on a roasting tray with a bit of paper,” he explains. “People say the paper is for helping clean up, which does make it easy to clean up, but it also has a very important purpose: that it keeps things moister. You don’t get as much evaporation when you put a piece of paper in there, so you actually get a more moist result.” 

Anna Polyviou, or the “punk princess of pastry” as Liaw calls her on his honey-themed episode of The Cook Up, grew up eating loukoumades (Greek doughnuts). 

She says what made her family’s loukoumades so good when she was growing up was the fact that her uncle provided fresh honey to make the syrup that coats them. Polyviou’s modern-day rendition of loukoumades sees them ramped up with caramelised popcorn.

Liaw says honey is a delicious ingredient, but it’s really a happy by-product of the extraordinary biodiversity that bees create through pollination.

“If we don’t protect our bee populations from the threat of things like pesticides, land clearing, and climate change, a lack of honey might be the least of our problems.”

Lead image: supplied

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