Waffles with raspberries

What is pearl sugar and how to make it at home

By BBC Maestro

Pearl sugar: you might not have heard of it, but if you’ve ever eaten traditional Swedish pastries or hot, fresh Belgian waffles, then you’ll have experienced this sugar’s crispy, crunchy texture.

But what exactly is pearl sugar – and how can you make it at home? It’s quick and easy to make yourself, whether you’re an experienced baker or just starting out in the kitchen. So, with that in mind, here’s everything you need to know about pearl sugar, and how to use it in your own bakes.

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What is pearl sugar?

Pearl sugar, sometimes called nib sugar, is a type of sugar that’s often used in baking. It consists of rounded lumps of sugar granules that look like hailstones or pearls – hence the name. Pearl sugar varies in size, but it can be anything from as small as a flake of sea salt to as large as a pea. You might have seen them sprinkled on the top of cinnamon or cardamom buns, mixed into the batter of traditional Belgian waffles, or decorating the top of a loaf of brioche bread.

When pearl sugar is used in baking, it keeps its shape and doesn’t dissolve into your baking. That means they add crunch to add variety to the texture, as well as a pop of sweetness – and they look good, too. Adding pearl sugar to your buns and bread can elevate them from looking amateur to professional, without any effort.

What is pearl sugar made of?

Pearl sugar is, quite simply, made from refined white sugar, otherwise known as sucrose. It’s made by taking this sucrose and dissolving it into large, round crystals of sugar. 

When it’s made, a sugar syrup is heated and then cooled under controlled conditions, allowing clumps of sugar to form without dissolving – meaning they can also be used in doughs and batters, and as a topping for baking, without dissolving in the heat of the oven.

What’s the difference between pearl sugar and regular sugar?

Pearl sugar and regular granulated sugar are both used in baking to make breads, cakes, pastries and buns sweeter. However, there are a few notable differences between the two types of sugar. The two most common are:

  • Size: Visually, granulated and pearl sugar look quite different. Granulated sugar has small, fine crystals while pearl sugar looks like bigger lumps of rounded sugar.
  • Caramelization: Regular sugar dissolves easily, meaning it’s used in batter and dough to add sweetness to the final product. Pearl sugar doesn’t dissolve during baking, meaning it keeps its shape – and is often used as a topping on bakes for this reason.

Uses for pearl sugar

Pearl sugar can be used when baking to add sweetness – sometimes in addition to regular granulated or brown sugar, and to add extra texture. The most famous example of this is traditional Belgian waffles, in which pearl sugar is a key ingredient.

It’s mixed into the waffle batter, and because it doesn’t dissolve as easily as normal sugar, the pearl sugar creates a sweet and crunchy exterior. It can also be used as a topping for baked goods, most commonly found on Swedish buns like kardemummabullar (cardamom buns) and kanelbullar (cinnamon buns).

Other common ways to use pearl sugar in baking include:

●      Brioche and sweet breads, either baked into the bread to add a bit of extra crunch or sprinkled on top before baking.

●      Chouquettes, French choux pastry puffs that are baked with Swedish pearl sugar on top.

●      Cookies: From chocolate chip to ginger cookies, pearl sugar can make the texture of your cookie more interesting, whether you use it in the cookie dough or sprinkle it on top.

●      Finnish Pulla, a type of sweet cardamom bread that’s topped with pearl sugar.

●      Suikerbrood, a sweet bread eaten throughout the Netherlands and Belgium that has nib sugar mixed through the dough.

There’s no limit on what recipes you can incorporate pearl sugar into, though. Once you’ve mastered the basics of baking, if you like the look, taste and texture of nib sugar, then you may want to start incorporating it into your bakes and breads.

Pearl sugar substitute

Pearl sugar isn’t widely available in supermarkets. So, if you can’t get hold of it but are desperate to make cardamom buns or Belgian waffles, you’ll need to find an alternative. Some other options that might work include:

●      Demerara sugar: This type of sugar has larger crystals than granulated sugar, and while they’re not quite as big as pearl sugar granules, they will add a pleasingly crunchy texture when sprinkled on top of your bakes.

●      Sugar strands or sprinkles: They don’t look exactly the same as pearl sugar, but if you’re looking for a way to jazz up your baking while adding more texture, then decorative sprinkles can be a good alternative to nib sugar.

If neither of these substitutes do the trick, there is another option – to make your own pearl sugar. It’s much easier to do than you might think.

Homemade pearl sugar recipe

One quick and easy way to make pearl sugar is using sugar cubes. All you need to do is pop them in a freezer bag and bash them with a hard object like a meat mallet, hammer or skillet to break them up. 

Then, you can use them in the same way as pearl sugar – although be aware that sugar cubes are more likely to dissolve, so they may not give exactly the same effect as pearl sugar.

Another way of making your own pearl sugar at home is by making sugar syrup from granulated sugar.

Ingredients: 

●      1 cup of granulated sugar

●      ¼ cup of water

Method:

  1. Add the cup of granulated sugar to a small saucepan.
  2. Heat the mixture over a low heat, stirring it frequently to encourage clumps of sugar to form.
  3. If there’s excess sugar that isn’t clumping together, add a little more water – but only add a small amount at a time, or your sugar could end up soggy.
  4. Once your sugar has formed into clumps, leave the mixture to sit on a low heat for 15-30 minutes.
  5. While it’s on a low heat, stir the mixture occasionally.
  6. If the mixture isn’t sticking into clumps, then turn the heat up slightly for 30 seconds to encourage the sugar lumps to stick together.
  7. Once the sugar has dried into clumps in the saucepan, remove it from the heat and leave it to cool completely.
  8. The sugar clumps should harden as they cool – and once they’ve cooled, you can use them in your baking.
     

If you don’t need all of your pearl sugar at once, you can store it in an airtight container in the cupboard until you’re ready to use it.

Find out more great tips with Richard Bertinet, world famous baker and cookery school owner, in his BBC Maestro course on Bread Making.

Find out more about baking

Now you’ve made your pearl sugar, are you ready to get baking? Richard Bertinet reveals the secrets of baking in his BBC Maestro course. With 26 easy-to-follow lessons, Richard will get you baking with confidence – and brilliant results. 

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