Liquid Gold: Beeswax in the Modern Kitchen

by Caroline Hatchett with research by Emily Jacobs
John Sconzo and Antoinette Bruno
April 2013

Beeswax Stats

Cost:
$10 to $15 per pound

Yield:
1 pound of beeswax = 1 pint, melted

Key Temperatures:
Melting point = 61°C
Loss of aroma > 90°C

Storage:
Wrap in plastic wrap and store in a cool place. Beeswax does not spoil but overtime gets a bloom, which can easily be removed by a little heat and rubbing.

Bees, it turns out, are of the most generous species on the planet, giving the culinary community (not to mention the world at large) pollinated crops, sweet honey, and the ever-versatile beeswax. But even as urban beekeeping has reached a fever pitch—and microseasonal, local honeys have become standard in kitchen pantries—experimentation with beeswax has not.

Beeswax, of course, is nothing new in food production. Artisans have long used the naturally antiviral and antimicrobial wax as a protective shield for cheeses and preserved foods, and pastry chefs as a glaze for candies and pastries. Most famously used in canéles de Bordeaux, pastry chefs mix one part molten beeswax with two parts clarified butter to grease canéle molds. "The mixture of clarified butter and beeswax makes the shell of the canelé very shiny and gives it a nice crunchy crust," says Fifth Floor   Pastry Chef Francis Ang. "It also adds a honey flavor to the pastry! Without the wax, the canelé can not be a canelé."

Beeswax in the Pastry Kitchen

Pastry Chef Matt Tinder made canéle at his last pastry post at San Francisco's Saison and fell in love with the distinct aroma and flavor of beeswax, as well as its seasonal variances. "In Northern California, everyone has their own bee farmer, and we have some pretty good ones," says Tinder, who purchases his wax from Marshall's Farm. "The last batch [of beeswax] I bought smelled like root beer from the bees feeding on fennel pollen." In the hive, beeswax starts out nearly white, but as the bees process and chew it, it takes on the color and delicate flavor of pollen oils and resins bees are lighting on.

At Daniel Patterson's Coi, Tinder began to play with beeswax, taking advantage of its ability to lock out moisture and keep pastry crispy. For his Passionfruit Baba Cake, Tinder freezes and shaves a thin "chip" of cake, pops it into the oven to crisp, and grates 1/8 ounce beeswax over the top with a microplane zester. After another quick dip in the oven, the technique renders a stable, crunchy garnish with subtle floral notes. He also grates beeswax over warm tart shells—not only to maintain their crumb but also allow a layer of almonds to adhere. "If we find a place for beeswax, we use it," says Tinder, who likes to layer beeswax into honey-based dishes to further reinforce the flavor.

Passionfruit Baba Cake with Beeswax Baba Chip from Pastry Chef Matt Tinder of Sanfrancisco's Coi

Passionfruit Baba Cake with Beeswax Baba Chip from
Pastry Chef Matt Tinder of Sanfrancisco's Coi

Finding New Savory Applications

At Michelin two-star Steirereck in Vienna, Austria, Chef Heinz Reitbauer brings beeswax into a completely new culinary context. At this year's Madrid Fusión, Reitbauer demonstrated how to cook fish in molten beeswax. The method provides gentle, even cooking—plus "it's very aromatic, and the flesh absorbs the flavor," says Reitbauer.

Reitbauer wanted to find a way to maintain the smell of beeswax in savory applications, and after several failed attempts, he hit on the fish technique, for which he heats wax to 84°C and pours it over cleaned filets. After 12 to 16 minutes, he scrapes away the wax and plates the moist, just-kissed-by-heat fish with beeswax-infused carrot juice jelly, a beeswax-infused carrot heart, lime sour cream, and char caviar with carrot powder.

He also uses wax to preserve foods and even clarify stock, reusing wax several times until it loses its character. He cautions: "The melting point is 61°C, and when you heat it over 90°C it loses aroma." Reitbauer's goal is to flavor the stock and his beeswax-based dishes with that seasonal je ne sais quoi only bees can deliver. "It's never the same product; every dish is completely different," he says.

Sourcing the Good Stuff

High-quality, chock-full-of-character, beeswax costs around $10 to $15 per pound. While you can purchase medical- and food-grade beeswax for less, these commercial products are stripped of what makes beeswax so magical. "Getting it from a farmer—it's an insane amount of difference in smell and flavor," says Tinder. Wax from reputable markets and beekeepers are the best choice for cooking, as long as you can verify with reasonable certainty that the bees haven't been chomping down on mega pesticides and pollution. Reitbauer only purchases certified organic wax.

As with any product, the higher the quality, the more inspiring the possibilities in the kitchen. And for all the trouble bees go to produce beeswax, chefs owe this incredible, peerless product a little more culinary love and experimentation.