Pearl sugar, also called nib sugar, is a type of specialty sugar made into small, round clumps that don’t dissolve or melt when mixed into batters or sprinkled on baked goods like sweet bread and pastries. Pearl sugar is a popular ingredient in Europe, especially in Belgium and Sweden, where it is added to waffle batter to add pops of texture and pockets of sweetness. You can buy pearl sugar at the grocery store or make it yourself at home using a few different methods, such as cooking it on the stovetop or letting it dry out overnight in a plastic bag that you can seal back up.
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.
What is Pearl Sugar?
Pearl sugar is a type of decorative sugar made up of lumps or pieces of sugar that don’t have the same shape. It can be as big as peas or as small as crystals about the size of pretzel salt. It is also called nib or hail sugar because it looks like little hailstones. Pearl sugar is prevalent in Europe, especially in Scandinavia, Belgium, and the Netherlands, where it is used to decorate cakes and waffles as an ingredient.
There are two ways to make pearl sugar. The most common way is to boil white sugar in a water solution, then let the resulting syrup sit for a few days so that giant sugar crystals can form. Then, these big crystals are broken up into smaller pieces sorted by size using a series of screens.
Mixing finely ground sugar with a small amount of water to make a dough-like paste is another way to make pearl sugar. The sugar is then put through an extruder and pressed into small pieces, then dried and put into packages.
Swedish pearl sugar is smaller than regular pearl sugar and is mainly used as a garnish or decorative topping that gives baked goods sweetness and crunch. Belgian pearl sugar is made of more significant pieces often mixed into doughs and batters to make baked goods sweeter and crunchier inside and outside. Belgian sugar waffles are made with amounts of pearl sugar that melt and caramelize in the waffle iron and then harden again when the waffle is served.
Pearl Sugar vs. Sugar Pearls
People sometimes mix up pearl sugar and sugar pearls, but they are two different kinds of sugar. Sugar pearls are a type of sprinkle made of sugar that looks like tiny spheres and is usually iridescent. They decorate cakes, cupcakes, cookies, and other baked goods. The way to tell them apart is that sugar pearls are made to be perfectly round and smooth, while pearl sugar is made of different sizes and shapes and is rough.
How to Cook with Pearl Sugar?
Pearl sugar is often put on cookies before they go in the oven. Since the pieces are so big, the heat from the stove won’t melt or break them up. Pearl sugar can also be sprinkled on frosted cookies, cakes, and cupcakes. And when the crystals are mixed into the batter for a cake, cupcake, or waffle, they stay whole and give the cake, cupcake, or waffle a crunchy texture and more sweetness
3 Methods for Homemade Pearl Sugar
1. Stovetop Pearl Sugar
For the stovetop method, put sugar and water in a sauce pot and heat on shallow heat until clumps start to form. This method will make small, round pieces of compacted sugar that look most like pearl sugar made by professionals.
2. Overnight Pearl Sugar
Mix sugar and maple syrup together for the overnight pearl sugar method. Spread it on a plate and let it dry overnight before breaking it into smaller pieces. This method will make shards of sugar that are sharper and flatter.
3. Sugar Cube Pearl Sugar
For the sugar cube method, put store-bought sugar cubes in a plastic bag that can be sealed and hit them with a kitchen mallet or other hard, heavy object, like a cast-iron skillet, until the pieces break into small clumps. This method is the fastest way to make pearl sugar.
What are the Uses of Pearl Sugar?
- A sweetener: Pearl sugar is often used to sweeten baked goods like brioche buns and pastries. It is made of granulated white sugar, so bakers often use it in addition to granulated sugar or brown sugar.
- Added texture: Pearl sugar is mainly used to change the texture of baked goods because it doesn’t melt or mix in as other sugars do. Instead, it forms crunchy, sweet sugar clumps that caramelize when heated. Belgian liege waffles, also called Belgian sugar waffles or just Belgian waffles, are a yeasted waffle brunch recipe with Belgian pearl sugar in the waffle batter. When the waffle iron or waffle maker browns the waffle batter, it makes crispy, caramelized pockets of sweetness.
- A decorative topper: Bakers add pearl sugar granules to batters and doughs and sprinkle them on top of baked goods for an ornamental look. Swedish pearl sugar, slightly smaller and more decorative than Belgian, is perfect.
What does it Taste Like?
Pearl sugar tastes sweet because it is made of nothing but sugar. Because it’s a decorative sugar, the crystals don’t dissolve on the surface of whatever sweet treat it’s sprinkled on. This gives the sweet treat a nice crunch. When cooked in a waffle iron, pearl sugar melts and caramelizes like the glassy top of a creme brulee. This gives the waffles a crunchy texture and a flavour similar to caramel.
Pearl Sugar Substitute
Decorative sugars like sanding sugar, sparkling sugar, or any other coarse-grained sugar will work just as well if you can’t find pearl sugar. Nonpareils, sequins, jimmies, and edible glitter are different decorative sprinkles that work well. Raw sugar, which has more giant crystals but is brown, will also work. You can also make pearl sugar in a pinch by putting sugar cubes in a plastic bag and gently smashing them until they break into smaller pieces.
Pearl Sugar Recipes
Here are a few recipes that call for pearl sugar, either as a topping or mixed into the batter.
Where to Buy Pearl Sugar?
Pearl sugar isn’t sold in many grocery stores in North America, but you might be able to find it in stores that specialize in food and cooking. And if you live near an Ikea store, you might be able to find it in the food section, and it’s also available online. Pearl sugar isn’t often sold in regular grocery stores in the US, but you can sometimes find it in specialty grocery stores, especially ones that sell European foods. You can also find pearl sugar on Amazon and a lot of other websites. But pearl sugar can be expensive, so I like to make it myself.
Sugar doesn’t go wrong, so pearl sugar doesn’t have a shelf life. Moisture, on the other hand, can make the quality go down over time. So, the best way to store it is in a cool, dry place with a tight lid. It will last for years if you keep it this way.
How to Make Pearl Sugar on the Stovetop?
A few different things can be used to make pearl sugar on the stove. First, you’ll need a cup of white sugar (turbinado or superfine will also work), four teaspoons of water, and any flavourings you want to add, like vanilla extract. Here’s how to make pearl sugar, step by step:
1. Combine the ingredients
Put the water and sugar in a small saucepot and stir briefly to mix. Then add any flavourings you want.
2. Adjust the heat.
Turn the heat down to the lowest setting and stir the mixture with a wooden spoon to help it stick together and keep the sugar from burning on the bottom of the pot. If the mixture doesn’t stick together, add a little more water, a 1/4 teaspoon at a time.
3. Dry out the sugar.
Let the clumps sit in the pot on low heat for at least 15 minutes to help them dry out and stick together. Stir them every so often to keep them from burning.
4. Turn the clumps onto a plate.
Turn off the heat and pour the clumps onto a plate or baking sheet so they can dry out completely at room temperature.
Pearl sugar (or nib sugar) is a type of specialty sugar formed into small rounded clumps that won’t dissolve or completely melt when mixed into batters or sprinkled on top of baked goods like sweet bread and pastries. Pearl sugar is a popular ingredient in Europe, especially in Belgium and Sweden, where it is incorporated into waffle batter to add pops of texture and pockets of sweetness.
You can buy pearl sugar at the grocery store or make do-it-yourself (DIY) pearl sugar at home using a few methods, including cooking it on the stovetop or allowing it to dry out overnight in a resealable plastic bag. Pearl sugar is a type of specialty sugar that is popular in Europe, and it is also called nib sugar. Sugar crystals are pushed together to make more significant pieces of sugar that won’t dissolve when added to baked goods.