Honeycomb — Off the Beaten Aisle
It’s time to think beyond the bear bottle. Because honey comes in way more forms than just plastic squirt bottles. My favorite? Honey in the comb, pure and simple.
And yes, the comb is totally safe to eat. People have been keeping bees — and eating the honeycomb — for several thousand years. But first, some honey 101. No, honey is not bee spit. But bee saliva does play a role.
When bees gather nectar from flowers, it is stored in a honey sac inside their bodies. During storage, the bee’s saliva mixes with the nectar, which (shocker!) is made mostly from sugar. Enzymes in the saliva convert those sugars into honey.
The honeycomb comes into play when the bee gets back to the hive. The comb itself — a network of hexagonal cylinders — is made from waxy secretions of worker bees. As these cylinders are filled with honey, they are capped with yet another layer of wax.
The bees do all this to create food for themselves. In fact, for every pound of honey gathered by people, the bees make and consume another eight.
Honey processors typically gather these wax combs, crush them and run them through a centrifuge to extract the liquid honey. But increasingly, you can find tubs of unbroken honeycomb at grocers and farmers' markets.
Honeycomb usually is sold in round or square tubs. It’s golden, waxy and sticky, and the easiest way to extract it from the tub usually is by using a fork or spoon.
Honeycomb is totally worth seeking out. Kids love it. It looks cool. It tastes great. And you get to amaze the little ones with facts such as the distance a bee would fly to produce just one pound of honey (three times around the Earth).
But after you’re done dazzling your kids with honey trivia, why bother with honeycomb when you could just squirt the liquid stuff from a plastic bear?
The answer is part textural, part versatility. Let’s start with the latter.
Honeycomb can go places honey can’t. While drizzling honey over a salad seems odd, topping a salad with crumbled goat cheese and hunks of honeycomb is a simply heavenly way to eat more vegetables.
Honeycomb also has a completely different texture than liquid honey. It’s nothing like chewing on a candle.
Rather, the wax gives the honey a pleasant body, transforming it from something merely absorbed by the other ingredients into something that stands on its own to contrast and enliven the rest of the dish.
Like liquid honey, honeycomb can be stored at room temperature for long periods. If you have a choice at the market, opt for darker-colored honeycomb (and liquid honeys), which tend to have deeper flavors.
Ready to give it a try? These easy ideas for using honeycomb should give you a start.
Stir chopped honeycomb into plain Greek-style yogurt. Or try it stirred into softened vanilla ice cream. Just don’t refreeze the ice cream (treat it like soft-serve), as the honeycomb will get brittle.
- Place a chunk of honeycomb over a bowl of warm oatmeal. Ditto for warm pancakes and waffles. And don’t even get me started about warm tapioca or rice pudding.
- Slather a baguette with Brie, then top with chunks of honeycomb. It's a simple and divine sandwich.
- Add a few small chunks of honeycomb to an otherwise conventional grilled ham and cheese.
- Make a salad of arugula, grilled chicken and slivered almonds. Top with crumbled soft goat cheese and small chunks of honeycomb.
- Make a ragingly spicy chili, then serve each bowl with a chunk of honeycomb and a blob of sour cream in the center. The honeycomb will slowly melt into the chili, working with the sour cream to tame the heat ever so slightly.
- Top thick slabs of angel food cake with whipped cream, then top that with a chunk of honeycomb.
This recipe calls for just a touch of heat under the broiler. It’s just enough to soften the Brie and honeycomb, one of the most splendid food combinations.
Heat the oven to broil.
In a medium skillet over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil. Add the onion, garlic and thyme, then sauté for 5 minutes, or until the onion starts to get tender. Season with salt and pepper, then set aside.
Split each English muffin in half and arrange cut side up on a baking sheet. Set under the broiler just long enough to lightly toast, about 1 minute.
Top each muffin half with a bit of Brie, then spoon a bit of the onion mixture over each. Place under the broiler for another minute.
Transfer the halves to serving plates, then top each with a spoonful of honeycomb. Serve immediately.
J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is author of the recent cookbook High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking . He also blogs at jmhirsch.