Background: I am going to make a bochetomel, which is a type of mead that utilizes partly caramelized honey to impart a smokey/slightly burnt taste to the finished product. The honey I have bought for this was expensive local produce, and I would like to avoid ruining it!

Question(s): What is the best way to go about caramelizing honey? If I were to make an uninformed attempt, I'd just whack it in a saucepan and gradually heat it... Is there a better method? Is it worth adding a little water to help stop it burning?

Finally, how will I know when the honey is caramelized? I have heard rumors of a 'soft ball stage' of caramelization that is ideal for brewing... does anyone have any experience with this that can confirm this exists?

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    I fully agree with Jefromi's answer but that said I can't help but critique the statement in the question it self that the "soft ball stage" is best for brewing. Yeast will be happy as long as there is sugar, anything but incinerating the sugar into carbon will leave the yeast in a happy state... I'm probably being overly picky but just to be clear the particular candy-stage probably has to do with taste preference rather than than the actually ability to brew, and while the initial author of the recipe probably thought the soft ball stage was ideal, individual preference will certainly vary – Quaternion Oct 3 '17 at 3:11
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    One thing I shall add from personal experience making italian meringue with honey: use a big pot. Honey will foam a LOT once it starts boiling, and while using lower heat/constant supervision are both important, I would still recommend using a pot with nice tall sides... – kitukwfyer Oct 3 '17 at 3:37
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    Just a hint - consider first learning how to do it on similar, but cheaper honey. Caramelized honey is pretty nice addition to winter tea or Christmas cakes :) – Mołot Oct 3 '17 at 8:51
  • @Quaternion Apologies for not being too clear in my question! I was asking whether anyone could clarify whether the stage existed, rather than whether it was the 'best' stage to use to brew with, and as per the two current answers it does :) – Korthalion Oct 3 '17 at 9:42
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    @Korthalion I thought as much but just wanted to make sure you didn't take the recipe as gospel. I've made mead quite a few times but have never tried to caramelise the sugar but being a bit obsessive about wanting to know the effects of things (like finding the statistically ideal sugar to acid ratio in cider; which as studies show the average ratio for what is ideal differs between Europe and North America as well as by sex) anyways I would take very small batches and using a candy thermometer record the values pushing the limit... the trouble is that – Quaternion Oct 3 '17 at 16:14

A candy thermometer is pretty much always the answer when it comes to candymaking, which includes caramelizing sugar.

Assuming the soft ball stage is indeed the best for brewing, all you have to do is keep track of the temperature: the soft ball stage is at 112-116C/234-241F.

While you can certainly buy specialized candy thermometers (they often have clips to attach to the pot), all you really need is a thermometer that's accurate in that range and can be easily dipped into your pot. (That is, don't use some old glass thermometer not meant for candy, but a kitchen thermometer with a metal probe is fine, whether or not it was sold as a candy thermometer.) Make sure that you have it in the liquid, not touching the bottom of the pot.

Note that this is well short of burning; there are several other stages hotter than that. So just don't use excessive heat, and keep an eye on it, and you won't have any disasters. This is also likely why people are a bit suspicious that this is the right stage to aim for: table sugar doesn't start browning until you're past all the candymaking stages, up to ~170C/338F. However, table sugar is pure sucrose, while honey has a lot of imperfections and is monosaccharide fructose and glucose, so it likely caramelizes much faster, so this may well be a good stage/temperature range.

There's also a way to test without a thermometer, but it's more difficult to get right on the first try. The stage is named the soft ball stage because if you take a bit of the syrup at that stage and drop it into cool water to quickly cool it, you'll end up with a soft, smooth ball/lump.

Adding water doesn't really help here. The temperatures are well above boiling, so the water is really just there to help get things going initially; the water helps ensure that there's something in contact with the whole bottom of the pot (no hot spots to form), and lets things flow around a bit, so you get to melted sugar with less fuss. Since you're starting with honey, you're already fine. Even if it starts out thick, it'll rapidly get thinner as it heats. All that will happen if you add water is that it'll take longer for all the water to cook off so that the temperature can rise to where you want.

Finally, this isn't what you asked, but if your goal is flavor, you can also simply heat slowly until it starts to brown/darken a bit and smell good, and then immediately remove the pot from the heat. The "slowly" is really important, because once the water is gone, the temperature will rise rapidly. You can still use a thermometer to help out with this plan, by watching for the temperature to pass 100C and start to increase more quickly; at that point you want to make sure the heat is very low and you're ready to move the pot.

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    Thanks for this answer Jefromi! Very informative and answered all facets of my query. My thermometer I ordered online arrived yesterday so I'm clear to give this an attempt soon! I have made bonfire toffee before, so now you've mentioned it I think I understand what the soft-ball stage is :) – Korthalion Oct 3 '17 at 9:45
  • Bear in mind the answer above is for caramelised sugar however, not honey. If you are looking for a smokey flavour i would smoke an open jar of honey, but both answers are for sugar, not honey, so beware, as your honey may wel lend up ruined in both use cases. – GMasucci Oct 3 '17 at 14:37
  • @GMasucci Honey is sugar and water. This will work. Yes, you will lose some of the delicate, aromatic flavors, but the OP's stated goal is to get the honey to the soft ball stage, and this is how you do that. – Cascabel Oct 3 '17 at 14:54
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    Honey is most definitely not sugar and water, different physical and chemical properties altogether, different burn points sugar melts at 186 degrees C, honey is between 40 and 50 degrees C if crystallised or melted at room temperature otherwise. And about a million other reasons why they cant be treated the same, foremost of which is the loss of flavour which is the main criteria in the OPs question.As presented in your answer this is how you burn honey. – GMasucci Oct 3 '17 at 14:59
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    @GMasucci The melting temperature you try to make is not meaningful: you're comparing the melting point of pure, solid sugar with a "melting" point of honey, a saturated or super-saturated solution of sugar in water, which is already a liquid. If you want a vaguely fair comparison, dissolve the table sugar in water first. I invite you to write a different answer if you like. – Cascabel Oct 3 '17 at 15:12

In the event that you aren't keen on buying/using a candy thermometer, I thought I'd add some additional information.

The 'soft ball' stage in candy-making is the stage where the sugar has thoroughly melted - meaning it's no longer granulated. The non-thermometer testing method is to drop a small amount of the mixture into cool water, and see if it forms a soft ball.

When making a generic caramel, you're mixing butter and sugar, and heating until the sugar melts. If you add this mixture to water prematurely, it separates into sugar crystals and oil. If the sugar is melted, the mixture hardens without separating - the liquid sugar reforms to a uniform, connected, solid.

But this doesn't seem like what you actually want...

You want to impart a small amount of 'smokiness' to the flavor. Merely getting to the soft ball stage will, yes, melt your sugar crystals and change the consistency of your honey, but you'll need to go further to actually change the flavor.

As Jefromi said, the key to not ruining your honey will be to add heat slowly and evenly. Use a low-heat setting and continuously sample the mixture. Once actual caramelized sugars start to form (a portion of the sugar burns), you should notice it in the smell and taste. You have to keep the ratio of burned : unburned sugars reasonable. And your brew might benefit from a more pungent caramel than you'd want to eat plain, but that's a decision you'll have to make for yourself.

Good luck, and happy brewing.

  • Thanks for this answer, good advice concerning sampling and smokiness levels :) – Korthalion Oct 3 '17 at 9:47
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    It's not necessarily true that there'd be no flavor change at the soft ball stage. Remember, honey isn't just sugars, and the soft ball temperature is plenty high enough for Maillard browning to occur. It's possible that this style calls for those flavors, rather than those of "pure" caramelization. – Sneftel Oct 3 '17 at 13:17
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    @Sneftel My experience with caramel is limited to fudge making, and this is the first I've heard of the Maillard reaction. A cursory search showed that the Maillard reaction occurs between 140 to 165°C, while the soft-ball stage seems to occur at 118°C... I'd like to improve my knowledge on the subject, so please let me know if there's something I'm missing. – Coty Johnathan Saxman Oct 4 '17 at 2:55
  • "When making a generic caramel, you're mixing butter and sugar" - really? Most recipes I've read called for sugar and sometimes small additions of citric acid etc, but never fat. Caramel sauce, or sometimes caramel candy on the other hand, calls for fat – Mołot Oct 4 '17 at 7:36
  • @Mołot As I replied to Sneftel above, my caramel experience is only as it relates to candy (specifically fudge) - so I do think of 'generic caramel' as the product I get when I heat butter and sugar. You're welcome to suggest an edit to the answer if you feel you can better clarify. – Coty Johnathan Saxman Oct 5 '17 at 4:31

In case you are still looking for caramelised honey guides, and not caramelised sugar guides, I have found the following:

And to add the smoky flavour, first make smoky honey:

Personally for smoking I would do it in the oven with wood-chips/herbs of the appropriate flavour. The simplest instructions for home smoking without a custom smoker I have found are here though there are many YouTube videos showing how to add smoked flavour using a normal oven and a baking tray.

I have added this link as an example on how to do the smoking, all you would do is swap the meat with honey in an ovenproof container.

Solid sugar melts at 186 degrees C, sugar and water at about 132 degrees C, honey is between 40 and 50 degrees C if crystallised, or if non crystallised then it is melted at room temperature.

So be very careful as to how hot you go or your expensive honey will end up being expensive char.

For the smoking I would sduggest a slight modification to the norm for honey: use an ovenproof container the rest as per the meat, only put the oven on to about 50 degrees C though, and set fire to the wood-chips yourself, letting them smoulder (a chefs torch works for this) I have used similar techniques when making uncooked ham (for cooked, just use the way that is shown in the video). I am not sure what temperatures you heat the honey to before use in mead-making however, if they are higher you could use them instead of the 50 degrees C limit above.

The main point to note though is that its a two stage procedure to get smoky and caramelised.

You mention you are making a bochetomel, so have included the simplest guide I could find on that too, as it has another way to caramelise the honey. ( I am thinking of using that in conjunction with this to make an eldeberry bochetomel for my wife).

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    Those guides are good advice. Note, though, that they are almost certainly going past the soft ball stage, to temperatures hotter than mentioned in my answer. Honey does have more imperfections, which speeds up caramelization, but "golden brown", "darker", and "nutty aroma" are all signs you're well past the soft ball stage and the rest of the candymaking stages, on into caramelization. So, if you're concerned about losing delicate aromatics, those are actually worse than aiming for soft ball stage. – Cascabel Oct 3 '17 at 15:26
  • Agreed will edit to suit:) – GMasucci Oct 3 '17 at 15:46
  • I should also say that the mention of melting point still doesn't seem to be relevant. Caramelization is a set of chemical reactions, it's not a phase transition, and the same is true of burning. The melting point doesn't tell you the temperature it'll caramelize or burn at. – Cascabel Oct 4 '17 at 15:38
  • You also don't have to get sugar+water to 132C to get it to "melt". When you make candy, you start out with sugar+water (and possibly other things), and heat til it's all dissolved (just liquid), and then heat to the desired temperature. The lowest candymaking stage, thread, is at 110C. And that stage makes syrup, i.e. something that's liquid at room temperature, so the melting point is actually pretty similar to honey. Fortunately your answer doesn't appear to depend on this - I think you could just remove that paragraph. – Cascabel Oct 4 '17 at 15:39

Using the microwave to caramelize honey works great. You can achieve any grade of caramelization just by adjusting the power and time. The only tricky part is to keep an eye on foam creation. Whenever the liquid builds up bubbles you have to wait some time until you continue microwaving.

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    This seems like a bad idea, as I wouldn't then be able to stir it nor regulate the temperature. – Korthalion Oct 4 '17 at 15:15
  • But the degree of caramellization. Also it is somehow self regulating and the only way without carbonization. – user61995 Oct 4 '17 at 21:11
  • A little carbonization is what I'm after. I'm trying to impart a slightly smokey flavour to the honey/finished product. – Korthalion Oct 5 '17 at 8:12

I used a pressure cooker and three large jars. It was a ton easier than standing over a pot stirring for hours. I think I got the info on it from the homebrew forums, check there or google it, there are a few how tos out there, but it's pretty straight forward if you've used a pressure cooker for canning before...

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