Baking with honey
People often ask if they can convert a favorite recipe to use honey instead of granulated sugar. This is a tough question with a short answer of “maybe” or “sometimes.” Although it sounds like it should be easy enough to do, even the best bakers may get disappointing results. For the most part, I believe a baked goods recipe should be designed to use honey from the get-go. Conversions are tricky with many issues that can affect recipes in multiple ways. For example:
- Honey is 17-18% water. This affects the measurements of both the sweetener and the liquid portions of a recipe.
- To most of us honey tastes sweeter than sugar. This will affect the flavor in positive or negative ways.
- Honey sometimes has strong flavors that can result in a good or not so good product.
- Honey is more acidic than sugar, a property that may affect how the other ingredients react with each other.
- Honey tends to burn easier than table sugar, so the heat must be lowered and, perhaps, the baking time increased.
- Some recipes depend on the rough edges of granulated sugar to cut through fat molecules and create air pockets. As the King Arthur Flour site explains it, “[Creaming is] where sugar and fat are beaten together to form and capture air bubbles, bubbles that form when the edges of sugar crystals cut into fat molecules to make an air pocket.” Since there are no rough edges in honey, you may get baked goods that are lifeless and dense.
- Honey is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs moisture from the atmosphere. This makes some baked products moist, but it can make others mushy.
When I went in search of conversions, I found many sites that recommend using ¾ cup of honey for every cup of granulated sugar. However, no one seems to agree on how much to reduce the liquid. The recommendations were all over the map—anywhere from 2 tablespoons to ¼ cup (4 tablespoons) per cup of honey used.
I like to think of it this way: honey is 17-18% water (let’s say 17.5%). If that is true I should decrease the amount of liquid by 16 x 0.175 tablespoons or 2.8 tablespoons or 8.4 teaspoons for every cup of honey I use. That’s the easy part. The rest is iffy. For example, a cup of granulated sugar weighs about 7.1 ounces and a cup of honey weighs about 12 ounces. If you remove 17.5 % of the weight (due to water) the dry honey weighs 9.9 ounces, which is still a lot more than the 7.1-ounce cup of sugar. Because honey packs differently than granulated sugar, these ingredients should be calculated by weight not volume when you are doing conversions.
Some bakers add ½ teaspoon of baking soda for every cup of honey to neutralize some of the acidity and to help with leavening since there are no sharp sugar edges. Some bakers reduce the oven temperature by 25°F when baking to prevent over-browning. Then again, some bakers recommend forgetting the conversions and looking for recipes that were written with honey in mind—an idea that makes eminently good sense to me.