What Is Pearl Sugar?

Buying, Cooking and Recipes

Pearl sugar

Hempel, Shawn / Getty Images

Pearl sugar is a type of sugar made of irregularly-shaped fragments of crystallized sugar. It's popular in Europe, where it's used to add sweetness and crunch to cakes, cookies and waffles, as well as for decorative purposes. 

Fast Facts

  • Irregularly-shaped sugar fragments
  • Usually opaque white color
  • Used for decorating and baking
  • Popular in Europe

What Is Pearl Sugar?

Pearl sugar is the term used to describe a type of decorative sugar consisting of irregularly-shaped lumps or fragments of sugar. It can range in size from small crystals about the size of pretzel salt, up to the size of peas. It's also sometimes called nib sugar or hail sugar, since it resembles hailstones. Pearl sugar is popular in Europe, especially Scandinavia, Belgium and the Netherlands, where it's used as a decorating sugar as well as an ingredient in cakes and waffles. 

Pearl sugar can be manufactured in two ways. The most common way is to boil white sugar in a solution of water, then allow the resulting syrup to form large sugar crystals over a period of days. Then these large crystals are broken up into fragments which are sorted by size using a series of screens. 

The other way to manufacture pearl sugar is to mix finely ground sugar with a small amount of water to form a dough-like paste. It is then pressed through an extruder to form the individual pieces of pearl sugar, which are then dried and packaged. 

Swedish pearl sugar is smaller and is used primarily as a garnish or decorative topping that also imparts sweetness and crunch for baked goods. Belgian pearl sugar is made of larger fragments which are often mixed into doughs and batters to add sweetness and crunch to the interior of baked goods as opposed to only on top. Belgian sugar waffles are made with fragments of pearl sugar mixed in, which melt and caramelize in the waffle iron, then harden again when the waffle is served. 

Pearl Sugar Vs. Sugar Pearls

Pearl sugar is sometimes confused with sugar pearls, but they are two different varieties. Sugar pearls are a type of decorative sugar sprinkle shaped like tiny spheres, usually opalescent, which are used as a topping on cakes, cupcakes, cookies and other baked goods. The way to differentiate these products is sugar pearls are manufactured to be perfectly round and smooth, whereas pearl sugar is irregularly shaped and rough.  

How to Cook With Pearl Sugar

Pearl sugar is often sprinkled on top of cookies prior to baking them. Since the fragments are so large, the heat of the oven won't cause them to melt or dissolve. Another use for pearl sugar is to sprinkle it on top of iced cookies or frosted cakes and cupcakes. And when mixed into cake, cupcake, or waffle batter, the crystals also remain intact, so that they provide a crunchy texture as well as additional sweetness. 

Belgian sugar waffles

Natalia Van Doninck / Getty Images

Swedish chocolate balls

Niklas Emmoth / Getty Images

Easter dove

Lev1977 / Getty Images

What Does It Taste Like?

Since it consists of pure sugar, pearl sugar has a sweet flavor. And because it's a decorative sugar, the crystals don't dissolve on the surface of whatever sweet treat it's sprinkled on, which imparts a pleasant sugary crunch as well. Additionally, when cooked against the intense heat of a waffle iron, pearl sugar melts and caramelizes, like the glassy topping of a creme brulee, which adds a crunchy texture as well as a caramel flavor. 

Pearl Sugar Substitute

If you can't find pearl sugar, other decorative sugars such as sanding sugar, sparkling sugar, or any other coarse-grained sugar will work just as well. Other decorative sprinkles, such as nonpareils, sequins, jimmies and edible glitter are also good alternatives. Raw sugar, which has larger crystals, will also work, though it has a brown color. In a pinch, you can also imitate pearl sugar by placing sugar cubes in a plastic bag and gently smashing them until they break apart into smaller fragments. 

Pearl Sugar Recipes

Here are a few recipes that specifically call for pearl sugar, either as a topping or mixed into the batter.

Where To Buy Pearl Sugar

Pearl sugar isn't widely sold in most North American supermarkets, although you might be able to find it in specialty food and cooking stores. And if you live near an Ikea store, you might be able to find it in the food section there. You can also find it online. 

Storage

Sugar doesn't spoil, so the shelf life of pearl sugar is effectively infinite. Over time, however, moisture can cause the quality to degrade. Therefore it's best to keep it tightly sealed and store it in a cool, dry place. When stored this way, it will last for years.