The need to post a blog article came to mind last night, when I pulled the lid off of a 5 gallon bucket of honey that had turned SOLID. Not just solid, but it was also COLD, about 40 degrees F outside. But I have to get some honey bottled up for sale, I'm fresh out and have folks wanting more.
I've dabbled with a few different methods in the past to quickly and easily liquefy crystallized honey. I want to share what I've learned to help others perhaps skip a few of the steps I took.
First a quick note on how the "pros" do it. Either they keep a vat of honey always heated, or they keep the bottled honey in warm storage. The DIY version of warm storage is simple an old refrigerator or chest freezer (or insulated box of some sort) with a heating element installed instead of a cooling element. Hold the honey at 95-100F and you see minimal crystallization over time.
But me, well, I'm "adventurous." So I put all my honey in food grade 5 gallon buckets when I harvest, hammer the lid on, and stack the buckets on my back deck (out of direct sunlight). That's fine in summer and warmer times, but becomes more of an issue in the cooler months.
I also learned not to ever leave honey stored in my bottling bucket, thinking it would be an easy tap later. It just crystallizes and plugs up the gate valve, and is a harder issue to resolve.
Now before buckets, I had all the honey in jars from day 1. If it crystallized in the jar and folks demanded a jar of liquid honey, I'd heat each individual jar in a pot of water and stir with a butter knife. For larger batches I put the jars on a cookie sheet in the oven. But my oven minimum temp is something like 275 F. Regardless of temp, this was very tedious. Now I simply don't do it. If folks won't buy it crystallized in the jar, they have to wait until I get around to heating a bucket back to liquid and bottling more. In general though, I've found my customers to be a bit smarter than the average consumer, and they are aware that there is nothing wrong with crystallized honey, and are happy just to have truly raw, local, honey.
Ok, back to how I deal with the buckets. Well, first I tried to purchase a cool bucket heater. It's a heating element encased in rubber that wraps around the outside of the bucket. This ran me over $100 I believe and quickly proved ineffective. The heater would warm up and then kick off, and stay off. I finally decided the issue must be that heat is not readily dissipated throughout the honey, so the element would register that it had done it's job and turn off. Now why it wouldn't turn back on as it cooled back to room temp is beyond me. The original reason for this purchase was that I had honey crystallized in my bottling bucket, and I wanted to avoid putting it into another bucket to reheat.
Finally it dawned on me. I needed a LARGE water bath method. I found I could place the 5 gallon bucket (without gate valve) inside my turkey fryer pot (something like 30 quart pot). It leaves about 1/2" of water all around the bucket. I set a few broken tiles in the bottom of the pot so the plastic bucket was not in direct contact with the hot bottom of the metal pan. Now with a bucket 1/2 full or so, it will actually float off the bottom anyway. I set this up on my outdoor burner and put the gas to it. I do this on a low heat and monitor the water temp, not to exceed 130F if I'm paying close attention. You should see the water steaming but not boiling.
As the honey starts to liquefy, begin stirring it. This will help move the warmer honey away from the edges. I use a paint stirrer for a 5 gallon bucket mounted in a corded power drill. Now in the event of a totally solid bucket, you can't use the drill at first. You'll need to manually churn it until it gets fluid enough for the drill application. From there, just continue to slowly heat and monitor temp. Do not exceed 100F if you can help it. I'll admit, I don't know the legal definition of how hot honey can get and still be considered "raw" but I just try not to flirt with it.
I have found that the more crystallized the bucket is, the harder it is to return to a fully liquid form. Recently I heated and stirred a bucket for over an hour and it still had a gritty texture. The temp was just over 100F. In the past I've taken a bucket up to 130 which made it become more liquid, and it retained the liquid state longer.
There is one opportunity for a silver lining here, and that is unofficial creamed honey. Technically to do creamed honey I guess you are supposed to buy some seed crystals from someone. But I've found I can just heat the crystallized honey and stir the crap out of it, mechanically breaking down the crystals to a smoother less gritty texture. Again, it's not "true" creamed honey, but it's spreadable honey.
All that being said, you can pick what method is best for your operation. I'd think for the avg hobbyist, likely just bottle it all up front and warm the container as needed. That is certainly an advantage to honey in a mason jar vs a plastic squeeze bottle. The jars allow to scoop out solid honey with a spoon. For a large scale hobbyists like me, storing in the buckets and doing batches seems to work. Still I'd be far better off to have a warm storage unit to save the long evenings of warming buckets back up.