Eternal Shelf Life

Antimicrobial by nature, raw honey lasts forever and can also preserve food treasures caught within it

By Francine Spiering  |  Photo by Elizabeth Vecchiarelli


Fresh turmeric root, sold at many local independent grocers and farmers’ markets, is easy to grate and preserve in honey.

You may have heard of how the daring archeologists who opened King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 found an ancient jar of honey and tasted it. They discovered the honey was still sweet and edible after 3,000 years. It suggests that honey has an essentially eternal shelf life.

Digging into the research, I find that raw honey is a concentrated mixture of sugars—monosaccharides, fructose, and glucose—with low moisture and low pH, all of which make it a hostile environment for microbes. But honey’s real invincibility comes from the work of the bees themselves, who, as they regurgitate their gathered nectar into the honeycomb, introduce glucose oxidase, a digestive enzyme that breaks down into gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. It’s this hydrogen peroxide, especially, that seals the fate of any microbes that might try to survive in this medium.

These combined characteristics also give raw honey its power to preserve.

“Raw honey has its antimicrobial properties working in a beautiful balance that doesn’t allow the honey to mold,” says Elizabeth Vecchiarelli, owner and founder of Preserved, Oakland’s unique shop for all things preservation and fermentation, including workshops and classes. “Once [an item is] fermented in honey, it keeps basically forever.”

Vecchiarelli, who has spent over 15 years mastering traditional preservation methods (for nutritional benefits as much as taste pleasure), became inspired to try making honey ferments after she came across the technique in Ikuko Hisamatsu’s book, Quick & Easy Tsukemono: Japanese Pickling Recipes (now out of print). She fermented garlic cloves in honey and the result wowed her.

“Honey-fermented garlic is wildly different: sweet and enjoyable to eat on its own,” describes Vecchiarelli.

When you ferment a food item in raw honey, the food’s moisture is drawn into the honey, creating a more suitable medium for fermentation. The naturally present microbes then can begin to break down and ferment the foods. As your fermentables lose liquid and shrink, they grow more concentrated in flavor.

To create your honey ferment, Vecchiarelli says to start by filling a clean jar halfway with the item you want to preserve. (Some possibilities include hot peppers, whole peeled garlic cloves, grated fresh ginger or turmeric root, cranberries, or other produce items with a firm texture and low sugar content.) Add raw honey to cover by an inch and be sure to leave a little head space in the jar since the mixture may bubble up during fermentation. Stir well to combine and help the honey nestle into every little space. Add a lid to the jar but keep it loose (or use an airlock) for the first week to let air escape.

During fermentation (two to four weeks), stir the mixture every couple of days, and keep checking to make sure the food stays submerged in the honey. Honey is thick and heavy but will become more liquid during fermentation. Adding a fermentation weight will help keep the food submerged.

Vecchiarelli advises keeping your finished honey ferments in a cool space, ideally the fridge, not because they would go bad, but to help retain their flavor and texture.

Now, let’s imagine how you will enjoy your honey ferments. Perhaps honey-fermented jalapeño atop crisp fried chicken? Crushed honey-fermented garlic as a coating for sautéed shrimp? Honey-fermented turmeric root livening up a vegetable stir-fry or simply stirred into hot water on a cold day? I’m thinking of that garlic-infused honey drizzled on grilled goat cheese.

And remember: As long as you keep every last berry, clove, slice, or sliver submerged in raw honey, it will last forever … or until the jar is empty. ♦


For recipes, supplies, inspiration, and plenty of delicious advice, visit Preserved at 5032 Telegraph Ave in Oakland or online at