Growing up in a big city, I can’t remember having local raw unpasteurized honey at home as a child. I do remember, however, my first taste of honeycomb during our annual August visit to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.
I always loved touring both the Food Building and the Agricultural Building at the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition), seeing the butter sculptures, tasting all the different foods and visiting the cows and ducks, ducks and geese, rabbits, and other animals. I loved visiting the honey vendors, most often local beekeepers. That first taste of local organic honey, and honeycomb, both surprised and fascinated me, both the taste of the different honeys (depending on where the bees gathered their pollen) and the glorious beauty of the natural honeycomb.
In our home, honey was most often a tub of Billy Bee creamed pasteurized clover honey, or the squeeze top liquid version, and was considered a special treat.
We grew up, instead, on Tate & Lyle’s Golden Syrup — no surprise in our English immigrant household! My father worked for Tate’s in our hometown of Liverpool, England, and then for a Canadian sugar company in Toronto that Tate’s had acquired. In our home, sugar was “good for us” on many levels!
But we did have honey on occasion. If I was off school with a cough or a cold, my mother would give me a treat of honey, spread on toast, saying it was good for me.
And now I know that raw honey is not just tasty but is also an ancient medicine and — in its raw unpasteurized form — is antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergenic. It contains pollens and enzymes which can be quite beneficial for our health. (See the Cautions at end of this post, however, as raw pasteurized honey is NOT for everyone).
Even “Big Pharma” is aware of the medicinal benefits of honey, funding hospital studies in the topical use of honey for healing skin conditions such as burns, bed sores and more.
Each year, I make several jars of infused honey such as Sage honey, Thyme honey, Hawthorn honey and Rose Petal honey. I can always find seasonal flowers, herbs, leaves or berries to use. Some of these I use medicinally, such as Sage or Thyme honey, whilst others bring in those lovely seasonal flavours to our culinary adventures — vinaigrettes, baking, teas and other beverages, and even mixed into flavoured butters or spreads.
Infused Honey is a great addition to the culinary repertoire
and to the Home Apothecary Cupboard.
I use Sage honey to soothe a dry scratchy throat caused by coughing and also for treating colds. Thyme honey is also excellent for this, and can be used as an anti-inflammatory, as a cough syrup and to reduce congestion. Works for me! You can also use both for culinary purposes. Thyme honey is lovely drizzled on goat cheese, havarti or feta.
And honey infused with florals such as rose, hawthorn or lavender…. sublime! They are a lovely sweetener in tea, fresh lemonade, drizzled on yogurt, and more.
How to infuse honey
Gather Victoria (do visit their site, a wealth of info and recipes for the wildcrafter and home chef) recommends this rule of thumb: 1 parts herb to 12 parts honey for a cold infusion and 1 part herb to 5 parts honey for a warm infusion. Please note this is by WEIGHT of the plant materials, plus liquid measure of the honey. So, for instance, if using rose petals with the cold infusion method, you would use 50 grams of petals to 600ml of raw liquid honey.
I tend to use the folk method for measuring out my ingredients. In this case, I would fill a mason jar roughly half way for fresh materials or roughly one-quarter full for dried materials, then top with raw honey. This is very similar to how one would infused herbs into oil (for using as is or in a salve), in vinegars, or in alcohol / glycerin for a tincture.
I also tend to start my infusions on the New Moon, so that rising lunar energy can pull even more of the medicine from the plant. But when using fresh, foraged materials, we may not be collecting at the New Moon. So, nice to do but not absolutely necessary.
Before you begin
Use clean sterilized jars, with tight fitting lids. To sterilize your jars, place in a large pot and cover with water. Once the water has reached a rolling boil, continue boiling for 15 minutes. You can also place in a 275°F oven (on a tray) for roughly 30 minutes (not the USDA preferred method, however).
Garble the fresh ingredients to remove any bugs, black leaves, etc. I love the word garble! One of my herbal teachers always used it; this is an archaic word — meaning to sort out or cull — and, to me at least, it sounds so magical!
I also let the botanicals dry a little, so they are fairly limp or wilted. It is essential to remove some of the plant moisture before infusing. Raw honey can keep for a very long time but water, introduced through the addition of plant materials, can quickly lead to spoilage or fermentation.
Be sure to prepare labels for your jars of infusing honey, to include the date, type of honey, plant parts used (flower, leaf, etc), common name and /or botanical name. Affix the labels before storing or setting aside to continue the infusing process.
A quick word on the infusion method
I tend to use the cold infusion method while others prefer the warm infusion method. Both are listed below. Some herbs are best suited for only one of the methods. For instance, some herbalists suggest using the warm infusion method for herbs such as Tulsi (Holy Basil), Basil, Calendula, Thyme, Rosemary, Fir Tips, Yarrow, and St John’s Wort. They recommend the cold infusion method for more delicate items such as rose petals, mint, Queen Anne’s Lace and Elderflower. That being said, I’ve successfully used the cold infusion method for most botanicals, including thyme, sage and rosemary. It’s worth experimenting.
Cold infusion Method
Add herbs or other botanicals to your jar using measurements per the “how to infuse honey” methods above. Top with honey, and then stir to remove any air bubbles. Top up if necessary, making sure the botanicals are fully covered with honey, but maintaining some head room (roughly an inch or 2 cm, depending on size of the jar), as there may be swelling. Cap tightly and label with the date and ingredients.
I like to keep my jars out on our balcony, where they can get the sun, but a sunny spot indoors — a windowsill or a shelf near a window — would be fine. Check and turn daily. If the herbs start swelling and rise above the top of the honey level, add more honey. Be sure to check that the exposure hasn’t spoiled the herbs.
After about two weeks, check the taste. If you like it, and can taste your infused herbs or botanicals coming through sufficiently, strain the honey through cheesecloth into a new clean jar. I tend to leave my infusions for about a month but the timing does depend on that magick created between the potency of your herbs, the amount of warmth and light, and the honey itself.
Warm Infusion Method
You can speed up the infusion process by gently warming your sealed jars in a hot water bath. Place the sealed unlabelled jars in a large pot or suitable container, and top with boiled water. Repeat several times over a couple of days. Do a taste test to see if the botanicals are sufficiently infused. If so, strain and decant, then label.
Rosemary Gladstar, in her book Medicinal Herbs, A Beginner’s Guide (affiliate link), also suggests an alternate method: use a slow cooker set to 100F (roughly 37C) for a few hours to warm your honey infusion before adding to the jar.
How warm should the honey get in the warm infusion method?
The experts differ on this. Rosemary Gladstar says to keep the temperature below 110°F (roughly 43°C). Gather Victoria says the limit is 60°C (roughly 140°F). Your choice. If the honey does become pasteurized, you may not get all the medicinal properties from the honey, but it will likely not crystallize as easily and may be safer for those with compromised immunity systems.
Storing your jars
Keep your jars tightly sealed, and your honey should last for several months or even years. Some say to store in a cool place (even the refrigerator) but this can lead to quick crystallization (warm gently to liquefy again). Others recommend keeping in a warm spot to prevent crystallization. So, again, your choice. What is important, is to check the honey to make sure it hasn’t spoiled or started to ferment.
But even fermented honey can be used, and some choose to ferment their honey for the additional medicinal benefits (after all, it can be used to make mead!).
Herbalist Rosemary Gladstar recommends gently warming the honey first (not above 110°F) with the cold infusion method to better extract the medicinal properties of the botanicals.
When straining and decanting, a very gentle warming can also help the process. Immerse the jar(s) in a hot water bath for a few minutes, but be careful not to let the temperature of the honey rise above the pasteurization point.
And don’t forget to use the leftover botanicals: they can be a wonderful addition to salad dressings, to teas, chutneys and in cooking.
Make sure your labels remain affixed during the infusion process. All jars of infused honey can look alike. Sometimes the scent will reveal the plant material used, but it is not a guarantee. And you want to avoid allergic reactions when consumed!
I do recognize that some will choose not to consume honey of any kind, as it collected from living creatures. In addition, some small beekeepers and large commercial operations have exploitative and unethical practices, such as selective breeding and worse. Know from whom you buy! For the perspective of the Vegan Society on this topic, click here.
I choose to support local ethical beekeepers by purchasing their honey as well as their natural product sidelines such as beeswax, pollen, and propolis. I support our local economy by purchasing at local farmers markets, or at their retail outlets, and make sure that I buy only from apiarists that place their hives in organic farms and fields, free from pesticides and toxins, and who observe sustainable beekeeping practices.
Healthy pollinators are essential for fertilizing plants and with the phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder, we need our pollinators. But we don’t necessarily have to consume their honey too.
It is generally recommended that both pasteurized and unpasteurized honey should not be given to children under one year of age due to the risk of Infant Botulism (Health Canada guideline).
It is also generally recommended that raw unpasteurized honey should not be consumed by anyone with a compromised immune system, or by pregnant women.
Always research first to be sure anything you ingest or use topically is safe for YOU.