Sanding sugar belongs to a category of sugars called finishing sugars. Finishing sugars are added to food items right before serving them, similar to how finishing salts are used. Others in this category include pearl sugar.
Sanding sugar is a coarse sugar that may be sold with or without coloring. In some grocery stores, it may be sold as decorative sugar. It has the same origin as any other refined sugar—it is made from reduced and crystallized sugarcane or sugar beet juice. Colored sanding sugar can be made by adding food coloring to sugar syrup, which is dried and ground. Alternatively, it can be made by adding a small amount of food coloring to sugar crystals.
It came about in the early part of the 20th century. It was at this point that sugar manufacturing had advanced sufficiently so that manufacturers were able to produce sugar with crystals that were coarse but even in size. Those two qualities made this sugar perfect for decorating baked goods, and this was how it was being used by the 1940s. Cookbooks of the era contained many pictures of baked items topped with coarse crystals of sanding sugar.
It is worth noting that in the earliest use of the term sanding sugar, sanding was a verb. Sanding sugar referred to a practice by unscrupulous shopkeepers of adding sand to sugar to increase its weight.
Sanding sugar flavor profile
Like all forms of sugar, sanding sugar is sweet. Because it is a refined sugar that is really just another version of white granulated sugar, sanding sugar does not offer much in the way of molasses or other flavor notes.
Sanding sugar’s crystal size is about four times larger than regular granulated sugar crystals. The size means that the total surface area is smaller when it is compared to finer sugars like confectioner’s sugar or even granulated sugar. The larger crystals also add a crunch to the baked goods topped with it.
Health benefits of sanding sugar
No sugar is particularly healthy. At best, some sugar varieties may have small amounts of nutrients that slightly offset their effects on health. Sanding sugar is not one of those sugars. As a refined sugar, its only nutritional benefit is its carbohydrate content. Sanding sugar is a great source of calories, which means that it can provide a significant amount of energy rapidly.
The downside of those benefits is that if those calories are not burned up, they are stored in the form of fat. The other negative effects that can come from sugar consumption include type 2 diabetes.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of sanding sugar is its sparkly, glistening appearance. That appearance results from the crystals being large and able to reflect light. The crystals will also usually hold their shape after being baked. As a result of these properties, the primary use of sanding sugar is as a decoration. In particular, it is used as a topping for various desserts and sweet breakfast items. It can be used to decorate holiday cookies or sprinkled onto blueberry or cinnamon muffins.
In all cases, it provides sweetness while enhancing the item’s visual appeal. Sanding sugar that does not contain food coloring can also be used as an all-purpose sweetener for beverages like coffee and tea. It is sometimes added to the rim of cocktail glasses, similar to the salt added to the rims of margarita glasses.