Tag Archives: soft set

Making soft set honey

Soft set honey was often called creamed honey before that description was effectively outlawed – at least for labelling purposes – under the trade descriptions act because it ‘contains no cream‘. It’s the stuff that’s spoonable and spreadable, it feels like velvet on the tongue because the crystals are so fine (hence creamy) and it remains looking good for a long time. The long shelf life more than compensates for the (relatively small) effort required to produce it … you don’t have to sell it or give it away quickly before granulation takes over and the appearance is spoiled. Winter is a good time to prepare soft set honey as it requires low temperatures.

Granulation

Granulated honey label

Granulated honey label

All honey granulates. At least, all honey that hasn’t been subjected to the sorts of heating and filtration used by commercial packers to produce a uniform and sometime bland product with a very long shelf life. The rate at which honey granulates is related to its composition. Honey with a relatively high glucose to fructose ratio – such as oil seed rape – granulates faster. Granulation is also influenced by temperature and particulates (e.g. pollen) that acts as a ‘seed’ for granulation. My honey carries a label indicating that granulation is a completely natural process and is a sign of high quality honey.

Soft set honey

Soft set honey is honey in which the granulation has been controlled. A small amount (~10%) of honey with a soft, fine grain, is used as a ‘seed’ for liquid honey. As the latter granulates it takes on the consistency of the seed honey. The principle is straightforward and an industrial process was patented by Elton Dyce in the 1930’s. However, this requires rapid heating and cooling of bulk honey, something most beekeepers are unable to achieve. There are some good descriptions online about making soft set honey, including a useful video by ‘BeekeeperDevon’ on YouTube. There are also a lot of conflicting methods published and some that are, frankly, either nonsense or wrong.

This is how I do it … followed by some details on a few of the critical bits.

  1. Extracted honey should be left to completely crystallise in honey buckets. This might take several weeks. The honey, particularly if it’s OSR, is likely to be spoonbendingly hard. In the following description I’m assuming the honey has only been (at least) coarse filtered on extraction, so will almost inevitably still contain bits of wax and the odd leg or antenna.
  2. Melt a full bucket of crystallised honey completely. For a 30lb bucket I find this takes about 24-36 hours at 50ºC in my honey warming cabinet. Stir it once or twice during this period if you get the chance – this speeds up the process. Honey should not be kept at elevated temperatures for extended periods to avoid the build up of HMF.
  3. Filter the honey into a clean food-grade bucket. I use the double stainless strainer and nylon straining cloth from Thorne’s.
  4. Cool the filtered honey to 35ºC in the honey warming cabinet. At the same time, warm the seed stock (see comments below) to 35ºC in bucket with a tap. By keeping the temperature below about 40ºC the all-important fine crystal structure of the seed stock will not be destroyed.
  5. Add the filtered bulk honey to the seed stock. Mix gently but very thoroughly. The intention is to completely disperse the fine seed stock crystals throughout the mixed honey. You can use a stainless steel corkscrew and drill, or a honey creamer. Of the two I prefer the latter. Try and avoid incorporating air during the mixing (hence ‘gently’) to avoid frosting in the final product.
  6. Cool the honey to less than 14ºC, mixing every 12 hours or so. It’s easy to achieve this temperature in winter in an unheated outhouse, pantry or conservatory. In the summer you can do this by adding a succession of freezer blocks to the warming cabinet (but it’s hard work). The honey will get increasingly hard to mix and will – within a week or less (and possibly within a couple of days) – set. This is soft set honey.
  7. Re-warm the bucket of honey to 35ºC and bottle it. See comments below.

The seed stock

You need about 10% by weight of a suitable seed stock to make soft set honey. You can use more or less, it’s not critical. Much less than 5% and it won’t be enough to ensure even crystallisation, or will take a very long time to finally crystallise. More than 10% is unnecessary and you’d be better saving it for another batch of soft set honey. If you’ve not got a seed stock of a suitable consistency (by which I mean of the consistency you want your final soft set honey to have) you can make, borrow or buy some.

Pestle and mortar

Pestle and mortar …

To make your seed stock grind hard set crystallised honey using a pestle and mortar until it has a wonderful, even consistency. It will start as hard unyielding lumps and end up with the consistency of thick toothpaste. This is hard work but you might only need to do it once, so do it well. You can borrow your seed stock from a neighbouring beekeeper who has something suitable, returning the same amount after you’ve prepared your own soft set honey. Finally, you could even buy your seed stock from a supermarket. If you insist on buying the starter, at least steer clear of the “mix of EU and non-EU” honeys (why don’t they just state “sourced from goodness knows where”?)  which could have just about anything in them. You are aiming to produce a top quality product. The type of honey you use as your seed stock is immaterial; it will only comprise a small amount of the final product, the consistency is what matters.

Bottling soft set honey

At 35ºC the prepared soft set honey will barely flow through the honey tap. However, with a little effort, and a long handled spoon to gently stir it, the thixotropic honey can usually be made to flow sufficiently to get it into jars. Again, to avoid frosting try not to mix air into the honey; hold the jar just under the honey tap with the bucket slightly inclined.

Miscellaneous notes

Spatula spoon

Spatula spoon

Keep about 3lb of your first batch of soft set honey – I use these useful sealable plastic containers – to use as the seed for your next bucket. This might be the following week or the following year – I’ve just used up the last of my 2014-prepared seed stock. If you’re preparing batch after batch of soft set honey on a weekly basis you can simply leave the seed stock in the bottom of the bucket with a tap. I’ve found silicone spatula spoons really useful for mixing honey, for getting the last few ounces out of the honey bucket and for quickly removing all the honey from the last three 1lb jars after you realise you’ve just bottled the seed stock for the next batch 😉

 

Future promise

Winter-sown OSR

Winter-sown OSR …

With the days getting shorter, the weather worsening and the bees hunkering down until the spring there’s little to do in the apiary. The warm weather, weekly inspections, swarm collection and queen rearing are months away … and it feels like it 🙁  However, things are already happening in the fields that hint at the season to come. The winter-sown oil seed rape (OSR) has been through for at least a month and is now 4-6″ tall. There’s a field just outside the village with acres of the stuff and it will be good to watch it develop into a sea of yellow next spring.

I have a few colonies well within range of this field, as do at least a couple of other beekeepers. Using a Google Maps Area Tool I measured the field at about 17 hectares. Although primarily self-pollinated there’s evidence that the yield and quality (i.e. the percentage that germinates) of OSR seed or its oil content, are all increased if honeybees are present at a density of about 2 colonies per hectare. So, ample to go round for the colonies I’m aware of in the immediate vicinity. Furthermore, if colonies are located close to the OSR field boundaries, honeybees forage for a considerable distance across the field – certainly hundreds of metres. This is in contrast to wild pollinators – like solitary bees and bumble bees – which tend to decline in density away from the field margins (see also this recent paper which reports the same thing; PDF). Whilst this is a compelling argument for wide, species-rich field margins and smaller fields, the reality of modern farming is unfortunately very different. However, the benefits of honeybees (and for honeybees) mean that it might be worth having a chat with the farmer and moving a few colonies onto the field.

OSR honey isn’t to everyones taste and it certainly involves more work for the beekeeper. It must be extracted soon after the supers are collected or it crystallises in the comb. In addition, unless it’s converted into soft-set or ‘creamed’ honey it will inevitably set rock-hard in the jar, resulting in many bent teaspoons. On a more positive note, the availability of large amounts of pollen and nectar relatively early in the season helps colonies build up strongly. With good weather it’s an ideal time to replace comb, getting the bees to use the OSR nectar to build brand new comb – perhaps on foundationless frames – free of diseases for the season ahead. A great way to start the year.

And finally, a reminder of what’s to come …

Early May 2015 OSR ...

Early May 2015 OSR …

Frosting in honey

Honey with frosting

Honey with frosting

Frosting is the name given to small air bubbles that get trapped between honey and the side or shoulder of the jar. It spoils the appearance of the honey, but doesn’t alter the flavour or the quality. Frosting in honey usually starts as a small white streak or crescent on the shoulder of the jar, but gradually spreads during storage, sometimes covering most or all of the inner surface of the jar.  Some buyers don’t mind it, particularly if they’ve tasted your honey before, but I suspect that it puts others off (unsurprisingly, no-one receiving honey as a gift ever murmurs a word of complaint if the jar is frosted … funny that). Because I think set and soft-set honey looks better if the jar isn’t frosted I try and prevent it forming in the first place, or do my best to remove it in jars for sale.

Prevention

I’ve yet to find a foolproof way of preparing set or soft-set honey that definitely will not develop frosting. Some batches I’ve made have remained ‘frosting-free’ for months, but most do in due course. However, the following things are supposed to work and probably help:

  • Use a settling tank to let the honey stand for a day or two after preparation. I decant honey to be jarred into 30 lb plastic buckets with a tap, and leave it for 24-48 hours in the honey warming cabinet at about 30-37°C.
  • Pre-warm the jars for bottling. I put cleaned jars inverted in the oven at the lowest heat setting to dry, removing them a few minutes before use.
  • Hold the jar immediately below the honey tap so that as little air as possible mixes with the honey during bottling. I run the honey down the sidewall of the jar, only placing the jar onto a zeroed weighing scale as the last ounce or so is added.
  • Do not jar more than you need in one session. It’s better to jar in 30 lb batches, rather than keeping 150 lb of jarred honey for a long time during which frosting is likely to occur. Of course, if you sell it (or give it away) in 150 lb batches then you’re hardly likely to be reading this looking for advice …

Of the four suggestions above, the last one is probably the most dependable. 30 lb buckets of honey are easy to store and take up little space. 30 lb of jarred honey weighs about 43 lb (assuming 1 lb ’rounds’), takes up a lot more space, requires much more handling and will usually develop frosting during extended storage.

Cure

Warm jars with set honey to about 37°C for 24 hours. The honey should become less viscous and would pour very slowly from the jar if you inverted it. Don’t 😉 You do not want to melt the honey, but instead just warm it sufficiently so that it can be stirred. Using a clean long-handled teaspoon – both for leverage and to stop getting honey on your fingers – gently stir the honey sufficiently to mix the bubbles in, working carefully round the sidewall of the jar to ensure it’s mixed evenly. The honey should be thick enough to stand the spoon in it, so you need quite strong fingers. Scrape excess honey from the spoon back into the jar using a small flexible spatula. Return the jars to the honey warming cabinet for another 24 hours, then store as usual. This is quite a bit of work and you really should try and avoid having to do it. However, if it makes the jarred honey more attractive and helps sell more jars then it’s a worthwhile investment of time.

Soft set honey

Soft set honey

Honey show (partial) success

Our local association honey show is always held in mid/late October. At the beginning of the season it feels like a lifetime away. With a long, hot summer being anticipated, the short October nights and the preparation required is just about the last thing on my mind. By the second honey harvest it’s a lot closer but there’s still no urgency … and then, suddenly, it’s four days away. How did that happen?

Soft set honey

Soft set honey

Our honey show has friendly rivalry, good natured competition and – usually – sympathetic (verging on the generous with my entries) judging. The good exhibits are often very good but care is taken not to discourage those with less-than-perfect entries. All the usuall classes are represented – light, medium and dark honey, soft set and set honeys, frames ready for extraction, wax, mead, ‘products of the hive’ gifts and photography. One of the most keenly contested classes is the honey cake which uses the relatively simple recipe used – I think – at the National Honey Show.


Honey cake

Ingredients

200g/7oz self-raising flour, 175g/6oz honey, 110g/4oz butter, 175g/6oz sultanas, 2 medium eggs, 110g/4oz. glace cherries (halved).

Preparation

Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F /gas mark 4. Cream butter and honey together. Beat eggs well and add them alternately with sifted flour then fold in sultanas and cherries. A little milk may be added if necessary. Bake in a buttered circular tin, 16.5 -19.0 cm (61⁄2-71⁄2 inches) in diameter for approximately 11⁄2 hours. Timing is for conventional ovens and is a guide only as appliances vary.


A few years ago I’d competed and won the beginners class (always generously judged) and been placed second in the ‘cottager class’ for those with 5 hives or less (I think this page will generate some disappointment if it turns up on a Google search for certain words in the text). Despite a clashing appointment on the night of the show that meant I missed all the judging I prepared entries for the light and medium honey classes – using the same batch of honey as I had no grading glasses so ‘hedged my bets’ – the soft set, the honey judged on flavour alone (the jars are covered with a tight-fitting sleeve, though the judging isn’t conducted blindfold so a few stray wings or legs in the scummy surface layers might still be offputting), the photography, the ‘products of the hive’ gift and the honey cake.

And the winner is …

Let’s deal with the failures first … I clearly misjudged what was needed for the ‘products of the hive’ class. I entered a jar of delicious lemon honey marmalade. In my view this is better than honey on toast in the mornings. However, almost every other entry was a stunning wax sculpture or a beautifully presented candle. Nil points as they say. Don’t let this put you off honey marmalade though … it’s fantastic and I’ve never had anyone turn it down as a most welcome gift.

Overcooked

Overcooked

The honey cake was a disaster. I cooked three in advance to get the cooking conditions right. The first one was badly burnt and essentially inedible. The recipe above is spectacularly wrong with regard to timings. The second was much better, although still a bit overcooked (shown right). My team at work wolfed it down. The third was better still but by now I’d realised that the diameter of my cake tin was 0.5″ smaller than specified (judges can be both pedants and generous in equal measure). The flavour and texture were very good and it was again scoffed with thanks by work colleagues. The day before the honey show I found a tin of the correct diameter and used it to prepare the – I hoped (Ha!) – winning entry. Big mistake. The cake rose better … but then sank like the Titanic to create a near-doughnut shaped entry. The judge didn’t trouble himself with the tasting. Wisely … it was undercooked.

Waspkeeping

Waspkeeping …

On a brighter note one of the photography entries got a ‘Very Highly Commended’ though I’m not sure which of the two prints I entered was favoured. I suspect it was “Waspkeeping” (right). In addition, I managed two third places; one for honey judged on flavour alone and one for light honey. I’m particularly pleased with the former as this is the primary reason most people like honey … because it tastes good. Finally, my soft set honey achieved a second place which was also very satisfying. Making soft set honey (or creamed honey as it is sometimes called) is a bit of a palaver but it keeps well. If you can avoid frosting – something I’ll discuss again sometime – it’s well worth the effort and very popular.

If you’ve not previously entered a honey show have a go. At the top level it’s no doubt cut throat with all sorts of trade secrets to produce the perfect jar. I have no trade secrets … use good quality 1 lb ’rounds’ without obvious defects, make sure the thread is scrupulously clean and that there is no honey on the underside of the lid (take clean lids with you ‘just in case’, but try not to open jars to retain the aroma in the headspace), make sure the jar is filled so there is no visible space between the lid and the honey surface. Stick the label on level and at the right height from the bottom of the jar. Avoid using jars containing parts of bees 😉

Then, with a bit of luck and a generous judge, you can prefix the text on your honey advertising with the important words “Prizewinning local” honey and be prepared to be inundated with orders.

 

Honey bucket tipper

Honey bucket tipper

Honey bucket tipper …

If you bottle honey from large buckets or tanks you usually have to tip the container to avoid the slightly scummy surface layer which can spoil the appearance of several jars if you’re not careful. As the level drops you need to tip the bucket at an increasingly acute angle. Of course, you also need to tip the bucket to get the dregs out as well. This can all get a little precarious. There are a number of solutions available commercially. Thorne’s sell a honey tipper which has a strong spring which is depressed by the weight of the full bucket. As the level drops the spring extends, so tipping the bucket forewords. Although clever, it’s not an inexpensive solution. An alternative is the FillyBoy which offers a simple manual solution but doesn’t appear to have a UK distributer. The underlying principle of both approaches is the same – two pieces of wood, hinged along one side with the ‘upper’ piece fitted with some way of stopping the bucket sliding forward. This is easy to build at home.

The pictures are self-explanatory. I used offcuts of ply and softwood. The bucket ‘stops’ need to be suitably spaced for the bucket size you use. You also need to use a bit of trial and error to space the ‘stops’ on the baseboard to make sure the bucket is tipped at suitable angle. I placed the stop closest to the hinge so that the bucket was tipped at an angle of about 30o. Don’t be tempted to try and tip it much more than this or it might not be stable if your buckets are tall. Although not shown in the pictures I’ve now added a simple handle to the ‘back’ edge of the upper board (see the FillyBoy images for inspiration) that makes moving the wedge, and so increasing the angle, an easy task.

It’s also worth giving the entire thing 2-3 coats of clear varnish to make it ‘wipe clean’ – not that honey ever gets spilled during bottling …

Honey tipper - top view

Honey tipper – top view

Honey tipper - opened up

Honey tipper – opened up

Honey tipper - side view

Honey tipper – side view

Honey warming cabinet

Honey warming cabinet

Honey warming cabinet

Preparing soft set honey, or warming OSR for bottling, means you will need a source of controllable heat large enough to accommodate one or two 30lb honey buckets (or more of course). Many recommend an old fridge or freezer with an incandescent 100 watt bulb. These are getting increasingly difficult to buy and require some electrickery skills – which I lack – to accurately and safely control the temperature. An alternative is to build a honey warming cabinet from ply, lots of insulation and a well-regulated thermostatically controlled heating element, like they use to hatch chicken eggs. 

Using ply sheeting, a few dozen 4 x 40mm screws, some wood glue and a few sheets of 50mm insulation (for example Kingspan or Jablite, both of which are available from larger B&Q stores for about £4-5 per sheet) you can build a cabinet that easily rivals those sold by Thorne’s the usual commercial sources for a fraction of the price.

Ask your local wood merchant to prepare 9mm exterior grade ply cut to the following dimensions:

  • Top and base: 2 pieces, each 47.5cm x 87.5cm
  • Sides: 2 pieces, each 50cm x 87.5cm
  • Ends: 2 pieces, each 50cm x 45cm
Internal view

Internal view

Using ample glue and screws construct an open-topped box on top of the base sheet. Add scrap stripwood as handles on either end and feet underneath before going to the next stage (rather than after having to deconstruct the finished box as I did … the screws holding these handles and feet on should go from the inside of the box outwards). Line the box with thick insulation; both Jablite and Kingspan are easily cut with a carving knife which is much less messy than using a regular saw. A single sheet of insulation lines the base of the box, with the sides sitting on top and lying flush with the top of the ply side panels (see photos). The insulation does not need to be fixed in place, particularly if you overlap the ends (like sealing the top of a cardboard box).

Element … ary

Element … ary

I used a 100 egg incubator heating element from Ecostat. These are sold by beekeeping suppliers at a considerable markup … instead try Patrick Pinker Game Supplies who sell them for significantly less (c. £55 if I remember correctly). These elements are pre-wired and consist of a control unit/plug with two protruding wires. One is the thermostat and the other the heating element.  Both need to be fed through a hole drilled in the end or side wall of the box. I added an external socket (see note at end of article) but this is not necessary – simply ensure that the wires from the box cannot be accidentally pulled out as this is likely to damage the element or thermostat. The heating element needs to be supported from short wooden pegs so that it is clear of the walls and floor of the cabinet – I prepared a false floor from an offcut of 3mm ply and glued/screwed the vertical posts to it. Small eyelets are attached to the top of these which then – using the supplied rubber bands – support the element. The comprehensive instructions for the Ecostat element make this very clear. The thermostat needs to be well separated from the element. I taped it to the inner side wall of the box. While you have the role of duck tape out it might be wise to cover the exposed edges of the insulation which can be a little friable. The lid is simply constructed by gluing a suitably sized piece of insulation to the middle of the ply sheet – you can use Gorilla glue safely with foam insulation. Tape the edges of the lid as well as they can get quite a few knocks.

[Note 1: I have prepared some rudimentary plans (with dimensions) showing the construction of this honey warming cabinet. These should be read in conjunction with this page which contains the relevant images.

Note 2: There is an additional brief post on alternative places to source the thermostat and heating element. These are also available from Thorne’s and possibly other major beekeeping equipment suppliers, though at higher prices.]

Bucket stand

Bucket stand

You need the lid and floor finished before you can prepare the last component – a ventilated stand for the honey buckets. This needs to provide clearance above the element, but be short enough that the buckets leave space above them when the lid is closed (to allow air circulation). The picture shows the sort of thing required without exposing my poor quality carpentry.

Finally you need to calibrate the thermostat. This can easily be done by standing a large container of water in the cabinet with a thermometer in it, allowing the cabinet (and, more importantly, the water) to reach a stable temperature before recording it. Alternatively, and a lot more conveniently, buy one of those cheap remote weather stations from Maplin which have an external temperature sensor. Leave this in the cabinet and monitor the temperature with the base unit. My cabinet is in an unheated garage and holds temperatures between about 20oC and at least 55oC +/- 0.5-1.0oC when the ambient temperature is below about 14oC.

Ready to go

Ready to go

Soft set honey needs a temperature of 14oC or below so is best made during the colder months of the year, though you can always use your well insulated box as a chiller if you add lots of cooling blocks.

Improving heat distribution in the cabinet

After using this cabinet for about three years I modified it by adding a small mains powered fan underneath the slatted wooden stand. I used the external twin three pin socket to provide the power for this. This is a marked improvement (on what already worked pretty well). The box reaches temperature faster and fluctuates very little. The only problem I have encountered is when you try and maintain a constant low temperature … the fan generates some heat and it is difficult to keep the temperature much below the low 20’s centigrade.

Queen cell incubator

With an inner container such as a polythene ice cream carton with a damp cloth inside (to raise the humidity) I’ve used this incubator to hatch out queens from grafted cells. Just stack the hair-roller cages vertically in the ice-cream carton and check them regularly. Virgin queens can easily be added to queen less mini-nucs. If you’re going to use this cabinet for incubating queen cells remember to calibrate the thermostat and mark it for 34oC well in advance.

Warming super frames before extraction

If you take care to build the cabinet the same dimensions as a couple of supers you can use it to warm boxes of frames for extraction.

A version of this article first appeared (way back in 2012) in Bee Talk, the monthly newsletter of the Warwick and Leamington Beekeepers.

Poundland

£1 only

£1 only … unsurprisingly

Good value 1.4 litre airtight sealable storage tubs are sold by Poundland that take just over 4lb of honey. I think these will be ideal for storing batches of soft set honey in preparation for seeding the next bucket. This saves either leaving it in the bucket or bottling it. You usually need 3-4lb of creamed honey of the desired consistency to act as the seed for a full bucket, so the volume of these tubs is about right. They might also be suitable for bulk sales.

It’ll be no surprise to know that these tubs cost £1 …