The Sweet, Sticky Science of Honey

And the bees who make it.
By and

Published Feb. 18, 2022.

Honey bees are a vital part of our world and our very existence. They’re pollinators, facilitating the transfer of pollen grains that allows plants to grow seeds and fruits, and they’re so good at it, the USDA has estimated that every 1 in 3 bites we eat is pollinated by bees. On top of all that, of course, honey bees also produce honey—a sweet, delicious treat and a powerhouse ingredient for Maillard browning. Is there anything these hard-working insects can’t do? 

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Honey: The Shortcut to Beautiful Browning 

After a honeybee gathers nectar from a flower, it deposits the contents into its honey sac. The sac starts the transformation of nectar to honey before it even gets back to the hive by secreting an enzyme called invertase. Invertase breaks down sucrose, a disaccharide (or sugar made of two molecules), into glucose and fructose, which are monosaccharides. 

These smaller sugars actually mean big things when it comes to the Maillard reactions, those beautiful browning reactions that give us the delicious sear on a steak and the brown crust on a loaf of bread. In the Maillard reactions, heat breaks down large proteins into their amino-acid building blocks, and carbohydrates and big sugars into small sugars, like glucose and fructose. So, if you start with those small sugars, you can get faster and better Maillard browning. All this to say, if you’re trying to quickly bronze a protein, reach for your honey.

The Best Way to Eat Honey

While honey is a great compliment to ultra-savory proteins, its sweetness comes to the forefront in dessert applications. Our favorite? Struffoli, a classic Neopolitan dessert. A true honey lover’s dish, struffoli consists of fried dough balls bathed in honey and decorated with multicolored nonpareils and sometimes confectioners’ sugar, nuts, dried or candied fruit. It’s perfect for Easter, Christmas, or anytime you want to make something fun, beautiful, and snackable. 

Struffoli (Neapolitan Honey Balls)

Tiny fried dough balls coated in honey and colorful sprinkles, struffoli will make you want to gather round with the ones you love.
Get the Recipe

To see how struffoli is made, and to learn plenty more about where honey comes from, the different types of honey, and the mind-blowing way honey bees communicate (hint: it includes dancing), watch the full episode of What’s Eating Dan below.


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