Baking With Honey – Practical Review

Honey is a natural product and as other natural sweeteners has  certain benefits compared to refined sugars. These benefits however, are mainly evident when honey is used without being heated. Compared to refined sugars, honey, especially raw and untreated, is a complicated product, which includes not only sugars. This post is not dedicated to the health benefits of honey, but discusses specific factors that arise when honey is used in preparing dough or batter for grain free or gluten free only baking. When honey is exposed to high temperatures during baking, some of health benefits attributed to raw honey disappear, because treatment with high temperature destroys many biologically active compounds, present in raw honey. If we are talking about honey in terms of its nutritional value and metabolism in healthy individuals, they are not that much different, compared even to refined sugar. This information can be found in UK Telegraph article (read here). The difference between honey and regular white sugar is in type of carbohydrates, present in them. White refined sugar is chemically sucrose (disaccharide), while honey contains mainly glucose and fructose (both monosaccharides). In a way, honey can be characterised as the product of natural sugars digested by bees. It is usually sweeter compared to sugar, because of fructose presence. When honey is used in cooking, several common sense points have to be taken into consideration.

  • Excess of honey in the diet will have the same effect as refined sugar, replacing sugar with honey does not allow to avoid sugars or make them “healthy”. Cakes and other baking products based on honey, as well as jams, sauces and other products, without any fats in them, have very high glycemic Index. Glucose from honey goes straight to the bloodstream with the same further metabolic patterns as glucose from refined sugar.
  • Baking with honey speeds up Maillard reaction (the reason for browning of the dough or batter during baking). The speed of this reaction depends on many factors – the acidity of the environment and chemical structure of saccharides, being the most significant ones. The more complex structure of carbohydrate component is, the slower the reaction rate. Glucose and fructose, as simple monosaccharides, presented in honey, provide faster and more intense reaction, which at its extreme end, can cause the appearance of some chemical compounds considered to be carcinogenic substances. That is why I would not recommend baking, frying or other cooking techniques, ending in dark or burned to black crusts, either in baking or in meat cooking. As tasty as sometimes they can be, they are bad for you. When baked cakes have very dark burned crusts, they have to be cut and discarded.

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  • Honey is chemically complex product and can react with other ingredients in the dough or batter. It can be particularly true when baking with gluten free commercial flour mixes or non-dairy milk (almond milk for example). Those products, no matter how “healthy” they are labelled, are highly processed products, with plenty of different ingredients in them. I am not suggesting that they are not good products, I only make a point that the results of baking with them can be very strange and disappointing. Good example of that is presented on the photo below, where you can see how an average pastry for strudel I regularly make, started to go practically liquid, and badly cracked while being baked. Honey was used instead of refined sugar and almond milk replaced regular milk in the dough recipe.

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  • Compared to dry, powdered or crystallised natural and refined sugars, honey is an oversaturated liquid. Using honey as a sweetener to prepare batter, dough or pastry has to take this into consideration. Quantities of dry and wet ingredients has to be adjusted, and their ratio in the recipe might change. It is not very difficult to do when there is a choice of gluten free dry ingredients with many different flours and starches. In grain, pseudo-grain and starch free baking with honey, it becomes a very serious issue.
  • Honey is not a standard product. Each honey has its own sweetness, viscosity and can exhibit a wide range of physical characteristics. Contrary to common view, that because honey is sweeter compared to refined sugar less honey have to be used in any particular recipe,  is not always true. It significantly depends on the recipe and the choice of other ingredients, especially when citrus juice, puree or pulp are present. Always tasting the batter before baking it for the first time is a must for me. The same is even more true for using honey in making jam, marmalade and curd.

Taking all the above into consideration, using honey in baking is not a simple and straight forward task. When dietary restrictions do not apply, honey would be my last choice of sweetener. My initial involvement in recipe development for sweet baking with honey was based on the simple fact, that some people, due to their medical conditions, can’t tolerate any sugars, both natural and refined in their food, but tolerate honey well. That was an absolute motivation for me to overcome all the difficulties and find specific conditions in which grain free honey baking results in quality, tasty and adequate products, where no excuses have to be provided to offer these products to anyone. This article does not cover the topic of using honey in cooking and making preserves, where none of the problems mentioned above are an issue. Problems and issues discussed are illustrated by photographs not only of grain free products, but also some baked products which are only gluten free.

I. Colour

Baking with honey is closely related to the topic of baking with fruits, fruit puree and fruit juices. Similarities in these cases involve the presence of simple monosaccharides, often predominantly fructose, in all these products. Gluten free sultana cake a simple example with the differences in colour of the cake, baked from the same recipe, in the same conditions and in the same baking pan. In both cakes white sugar was used, but sultanas were treated differently. In the first cake they were plumped in boiling water, rinsed and dried before use.

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For the second cake, different type of sultanas and inca berries were plumped in fresh orange juice (quite sweet) for 3 days in the fridge. They were dried on paper towel, without rinsing. Baking regime was very mild, but the colour of the cake upset me terribly. Fortunately it was not burned, only the colour was not bright yellow, that I expected. The cake tasted amazing, but it was not what I wanted in terms of cake appearance.

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II. Honey and Eggs

Honey represents no problems when porous texture has to be obtained for the batter. Honey beaten with whole eggs,

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egg whites,

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egg whites and apple puree,

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with egg whites and plum puree

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forms thick stable structure, which can be transformed into variety of cakes and deserts.

III. Baking Pans and Temperature

Next two issues are closely interconnected. They are the choice of baking pan/tin and temperature regime. I made many mistakes and finally learned quite simple lesson – for the best baking results, when choosing baking pan, try to minimise the total size of batter which heat has to penetrate. It is better to bake 2 smaller cake, than 1 large. Ring shape baking pans are excellent as well as baking tins which maximise the surface of the tin.

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Note: This is the bake from my recipe by the person this blog was created for. I am delighted to observe that it is a better bake than mine.

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Smaller cakes take less time to be baked properly, before they start to burn dangerously. My first orange, almond and poppy-seed cake started to darken and I had to stop baking when the cake was visibly fully baked, but later the middle of the cake sunk. It means that though the cake was baked, the texture in the middle was not able to support the weight of the cake when it cooled down.

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It can be seen better, when the cake is shown cut.

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It is also obvious, that the side crust is if not completely burned, but burned enough to exhibit some bitterness in taste. Now I bake this cake differently. I made three changes. The same portion of the batter is used to half fill 2 medium size loaf tins (10cm x 20cm). I also use loaf liners to provide even more separation between the batter and the tin. Filling the tin only to 1/2 and leaving the batter siting deep and protected with paper liners protects the cake from too much exposure to unnecessary heat.

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The last condition, and probably the most significant one, is the reduction in temperature with simultaneous prolongation of baking. I preheat the oven to 170C, reduce it to 150-155, no fan and bake cakes, side by side, for 65-70min. The result is quite different.

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Not only the colour of the cake is lighter, but the cake ends up with soft but firm texture, capable to keep the shape of the loaf, without any sinking in the middle. With honey based cakes it is always a balancing act to find the right temperature regime in your oven, low enough not to burn the cake, but high enough to allow the batter to rise and the cake to be fully baked.

Another example of how different the colour of baking products with honey depends on temperature is an amazing old-fashioned desert Honey and Apple pastila – traditional Russian confection made by very long baking of whipped mixture of apple puree, honey and egg white.

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Even after 6-8 hours of baking the colour of the product is very pale. The temperature of the oven was 100C. Problems are a little different with baking biscuits.

IV. Baking Biscuits

Biscuits with honey as an ingredient in their recipe burn even faster than cakes. This process obviously depends on the dough recipe, but as a general rule, the temperature used to bake biscuits and cookies have to be even lower than that for cakes. It is particularly important to get the right texture for the products where coconut flour is used. If biscuits with coconut flour as an ingredient are baked fast and taken out of the oven when they just start to brown, but haven’t dried properly in the middle, their texture, nice and crunchy from the oven, would go soft and not as pleasant, if not disappointing, when stored even in the tightly closed container. Simple example are sugar and grain free Tuile biscuits I make. The first several batches were good when fresh.

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Their colour is darker because they have Dutch spice mix in them and not burned, but after 2-3 days their texture becomes soft and though looking pretty, they are not as good in taste. Baking Tuile biscuits at substantially lower temperatures of 140-145C, leaves them fully baked, staying crunchy and dry for days.

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The second important rule when baking biscuits is to make sure that the thickness of the dough is as even as possible. It can be seen that thinner edges of grain and sugar free biscuits bake and burn faster than the centre.

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With very thin biscuits it can be seen even better. It is hard to get the thickness of the layer level and even and it shows when biscuits are baked fast at higher temperatures.

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With slow baking at low temperatures it is a completely different look.

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The same goes for other types of biscuits, based on different recipes.

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If you want to get nice, identical looking biscuits with even colouring, you have to lower the temperature and find an optimal temperature regime for your oven. Below is not my bake either, the perfect in my books grain, dairy and sugar free, honey biscuit.

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When baking biscuits the following factors can make a big difference in final product, its texture and avoidance of excessive browning:

  • fan or no fan baking regime
  • flat baking tray (baking sheet) or low baking tray with elevated sides (1-2-3cm deep)
  • single or multiple shelf baking regime
  • dough placement and distribution on baking tray (full loading or middle tray loading)

V. Cakes or Muffins?

I baked both from the same batter, muffins in muffin paper liners and the cake in lined with baking paper Pyrex glass loaf tin. Though very similar, muffins, I believe, were absolutely perfect bake, the cake was very good, but not as satisfying as muffins.

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If I was to bake another cake from this batter, I would bake 2 thin layers and make a layered cake with blood orange curd between layers. When trying new recipe, even if it is cake recipe, try to bake it as muffins first. It will allow to check how the recipe works, what final texture of the bake is, and how is it possible to bake a better cake.

The main conclusions for baking with honey are simple:

  1. Choose baking pans carefully
  2. Lower the temperature
  3. Protect batter or dough with lining if applicable
  4. Make selections in favour of smaller size baking products
  5. Do not open oven door when baking cakes (is not an issue for baking biscuits)
  6. Avoid soaking sultanas (any dried fruits) in juices or any liquids containing glucose and especially fructose

Good luck in your adventures!

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