Menu
Search
Menu
Close

Supermarket Honey

Published August 2015

How we tested

America has a sky-high demand for honey: According to the National Honey Board, we eat more than 400 million pounds of the stuff every year. Considering that the average honeybee produces only 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey over its lifetime, that’s a lot of honey . . . and a lot of bees.

To keep up with the demand, manufacturers source honey from all over the country and globe. Today, the average jar of honey on supermarket shelves is actually a mix of honeys from many hives that’s been carefully blended and processed to engineer a preferred flavor and color. (“Single-source” honeys, or honeys from a single hive, are a different breed entirely.)

Most supermarket honey is processed one of two ways. Traditional honey is usually heated to thin it enough so that it can pass under high pressure through fine strainers to remove pollen and give the honey a clear appearance, which many consumers prefer. Raw honey, by contrast, is usually only heated high enough (about 120 degrees) to prevent it from crystallizing on store shelves. The honey is then lightly strained to remove debris and leftover wax, but it’s not filtered under high pressure and retains most of its pollen.

To find the best supermarket honey, we selected five top-selling honeys—three traditional and two raw. Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staffers tried each product plain and in honey cake.

In both tastings, we universally preferred the two raw honeys, calling them “complex,” with “slight bitterness” and “strong floral notes.” Traditional honeys, by contrast, were “one-note” and “aggressively sweet.” Some were so “cloying” that tasters thought the samples were corn syrup. What accounts for the flavor difference between traditional honey and raw honey?

Our science editor explained that pollen contains alkaloids and phenolics—chemicals that add complex, slightly bitter flavors. Tasters liked how these tempered the sweetness of honey. The fact that raw honey is also heated more gently likely helps preserve its delicate, nuanced flavors. These flavors showed through when we used the honey as an ingredient in cake, too: Tasters deemed cake made with raw honey “more complex” and more “distinctly honey flavored” than products made with traditional brands.

Flavor is also influenced by what the bees feed on. While bees are free to fly wherever they like, most manufacturers list the primary diet of their bees on honey jars. The traditional honeys in our lineup were primarily sourced from clover-eating bees, while the raw brands were mixtures from bees that feasted on all sorts of grasses and flowers. Tasters noted strong floral and grassy notes in raw honeys that stood in contrast to the milder flavors of clover honey.

So when shopping for honey, look for the word “raw” on the label and choose a product that comes from bees with a varied diet. Our favorite product sources its honey from bees that feed on a blend of wildflowers, clover, Chinese tallow, and vetch; it was slightly bitter and floral, with a deep, balanced sweetness.

Methodology

Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staffers tried each product plain and in honey cake.

Try CooksIllustrated.com Free for 14 Days

Included in your trial membership

  • 20+ years of Cook's Illustrated foolproof recipes
  • In-depth videos of recipes and cooking techniques
  • SAVE all your Favorites for easy access
  • Up-to-Date reviews and product buying guides

Get everything Cook's Illustrated — become the Smartest Cook you know, guaranteed.

Email is required
How we use your email address

The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*