Pearl sugar is a mostly decorative large-grained sugar popular in parts of Europe. It is especially prevalent in Belgium, which is most likely where it was invented. It can be challenging to find if you are not in Belgium or Scandinavia, so if you don’t have any at the moment, you may need to find an alternative. Here is a look at at some of the most effective pearl sugar substitutes:
Your best bet: Make your own pearl sugar
Pearl sugar consists of refined white sugar clumps. It’s easy enough to create these clumps using refined white sugar and a little water. What you want is to have the sugar granules stick together, which is what they tend to do on their own when exposed to humid air for too long.
You can provide a faster version of this process by placing roughly a cup of sugar in a pot over a low heat with about a tablespoon of water. Stir the sugar and water together to form small clumps. If much of the sugar remains as loose granules, keep adding water a teaspoon at a time until it starts to stick together. You should avoid adding too much so that it becomes a syrup, and you should carefully monitor your heat and the color of your sugar since you don’t want it to caramelize.
Once you start to see clumps that hold together reasonably well, remove it from the heat and let it cool. You can use your sugar clumps in the same ways that you would use pearl sugar.
A decent second choice: Sanding sugar
Like pearl sugar, sanding sugar is essentially the same as refined white sugar but with large granules. Sanding sugar is used to provide the same properties as pearl sugar: decoration, crunch, and sweetness. The difference is that the grains of sanding sugar are shinier and translucent, as opposed to the matte surface and opacity pearl sugar.
There are many different colors of sanding sugar available. You can use sanding sugar in most of the same pastries and other baked goods that require pearl sugar. The appearance might be a little different, but the texture and taste will be similar.
In a pinch: Sugar cubes
As their name indicates, sugar cubes are compacted blocks of refined white sugar. Because they consist of the same material as pearl sugar, sugar cubes can play a similar role in some baked goods. You can use sugar cubes as a topping for cinnamon buns and other items that are traditionally topped with pearl sugar. You will need to gently crush the sugar cubes to get the right consistency.
Sugar cubes won’t be an ideal pearl sugar substitute in baked goods where they are baked into doughs or batters. They may dissolve, which means that they won’t provide the same crunch that you would get from pearl sugar. You should also keep in mind that sugar cubes are typically made with cane sugar. Not only is cane sugar slightly sweeter than the beet sugar used to make pearl sugar, but it also lacks the earthiness and slight bitterness that are characteristics of beet sugar.
Rock candy is very similar to pearl sugar, so you can use it as a substitute in some applications. Like sugar cubes, you will need to crush the rock candy to get pieces roughly the same size as pearl sugar grains.