Sugar is a very important ingredient in baking, not only for its power to sweeten yummy desserts, but also for its ability to help get a lovely rise in yeasted breads and rolls. Most of the time when you hear the word sugar, you think of the four and five pound bags often found in local grocery stores.
This type of sugar is used primarily for making baked goods and sweetening up teas and coffees. It may also be used as an added dash of sweetener to bowls of cereal or oatmeal in the morning, or as a tasty topping on a batch of fresh strawberries. Really, there is no end to the uses of sugar!
However, there is a wide world of sugar out there, and different types of sugar are used for a variety of different things. Sanding sugar, in particular, is especially fun and versatile.
Sanding sugar is a large crystal sugar that's great for decorating because it won't dissolve with heat. It also creates a sparkly effect because of the large size of the crystals that reflect light. It's great for decorating treats like cookies, cakes, scones, muffins, and even candies. This coarse and often sparkling sugar helps to add a special crunch and extra flair to even the simplest of offerings. This makes sanding sugar an excellent addition to your holiday baking arsenal, because you can dress up your deserts as festively or as simply as you like.
You can even make your own colors of sanding sugar, if you’re feeling particularly industrious and motivated. Perhaps a bit of bright pink and dazzling red for Valentine’s day? The sky’s the limit!
The Many Types of Sugars Available
Common types of sugars include white granulated sugar, which can easily be found on the shelves in the grocery store. This type of sugar is typically used in baked goods and its fine crystals help to keep it from caking together.
This feature makes it ideal for many other uses too though, everything from dissolving it in that big pitcher of summer tea, to measuring it out by the cupful to make a batch of homemade banana pudding.
Another common sugar found on the shelves of your local grocery store is brown sugar, which can be labeled both dark and light. Brown sugar is basically the same thing as white sugar, except it contains cane molasses, which gives it that light or dark color. How light and how dark depends on how much molasses is present.
This type of sugar has a stronger flavor than white granulated sugar because of the molasses, so it's often used in baked goods that boast stronger flavors, such as ginger cookies or molasses cookies. It also makes a great addition to a big bowl of oatmeal with raisins and butter!
Powdered or Confectioners’ Sugar
Powdered sugar, sometimes called confectioners' sugar, is basically white granulated sugar that is been ground to a fine powder. It's usually mixed with cornstarch to prevent it from caking, and it is the most common type of sugar used in frostings and glazes.
Ultra-fine sugar is a version of regular white granulated sugar with smaller crystals, although it’s not quite as fine as powdered sugar. It works well in delicate desserts like puddings and mousse, largely because it doesn't need heat in order to dissolve properly. This makes it ideal for mixing into cold drinks as well, especially if you hate it when your sugar doesn’t dissolve!
Decorating or Coarse Sugar
Then there is something called decorating sugar, also known as coarse sugar. This type of sugar has crystals that are much larger in size than white granulated sugar, which makes it stronger and more heat resistant.
If you can't tell by the name, this type of sugar is used primarily for decorating candy and desserts, and it can be found in a wide variety of colors. This type of sugar is also sometimes called pearl sugar.
This is because before any color is added, it’s opaqueness makes it look a bit like pearls. Or the salt crystals you find on giant pretzels. This type of sugar is sometimes used (or talked about) interchangeably with sanding sugar, but they aren’t quite the same.
Turbinado sugar is another coarse sugar with large crystals, and it is usually somewhat lighter in color, though it isn’t white. It is used mostly as a beverage sweetener and is often labeled as a “raw” sugar.
Now, About That Sanding Sugar
And finally, we have sanding sugar. Sanding sugar is similar to decorating sugar, except that it is larger in size and more polished looking, making it fall somewhere in between regular granulated sugar and coarse sugar.
Sanding sugar comes in a bunch of different colors, or with no color, and as an added bonus, it also reflects light. This makes the desserts and goods it is used to decorate sparkle. Because of this, it may sometimes be referred to as sparkling sugar, although sparkling sugar is a little larger in size and resembles glitter more than sand.
How Sanding Sugar Is Made
Sanding sugar is made by drying out sugar syrup, then screening and coloring the granules that are left behind. You can also make your own sanding sugar using a course ground sugar like turbinado.
Just keep in mind that turbinado is not pure white, it’s a little tan, so that could affect the color you are trying to achieve when making your own. If you don't want to use turbinado sugar, you can also use sparkling sugar. This may be where the terms end up getting used interchangeably, because often when people decide to make their own sanding sugar, they use sparkling sugar.
Whatever you use, simply combine gel food coloring and your sugar into a plastic baggie, and then knead the contents of the bag until the color has blended well. If it seems as though the granules are tacky and sticking together, add in a bit of cornstarch and knead the bag again to mix it all. Once you have your desired color and texture, simply store your sanding sugar in a good airtight container so that it’s ready for future use.
Substitutes for Sanding Sugar
You can use decorator’s sugar and pearl sugar as a substitute for sanding sugar when decorating things like muffins, cookies, cakes, and scones. You can also use other coarse sugars in its place as well if you only want the texture, and don't care about the color. Keep in mind that if you substitute coarse sugar for sanding sugar, after heating it will no longer sparkle the way sanding sugar does, though it will still hold its shape.
Common Uses of Sanding Sugar
Sanding sugar is used to decorate and garnish desserts and goodies like cookies, scones, muffins, and candies. It’s sometimes used for other things too, like cakes.
It makes a great addition to your creative arsenal, especially if you like to decorate holiday cookies to bag up and hand out as gifts each year.
Sometimes sanding sugar is also used on the rim of glasses for specialty drinks. It’s a great way to add some dazzle to a drink that may be muted in color.
How to Use Sanding Sugar
The nice thing about sanding sugar is that it holds up well under heat, so you can use it before baking or after baking as a finishing touch. Decorate your cookies before putting them in the oven, and coat them heavily to give them a solid color. Or you could try sprinkling the sanding sugar in small amounts for just a touch of glimmer.
You can also try decorating only the edges of your cookies for a subtler look, or use it as a topper for treats like cobblers, scones, and muffins. Just coat them in a sprinkle of sanding sugar before popping them in the oven. Keep in mind that white sanding sugar is typically used for this purpose, although you can use color if you like.
Pro tip: to get your sanding sugar to stick to your treats after they have been baked, let them cool completely, and then use an egg wash. This is made from egg whites mixed with water.
You can also use sanding sugar on wet icing, much like you would use glitter on top of glue. Just shake off the excess, and then allow the icing to dry.
If you are a fan of chocolate, you can also use melted chocolate as your base for sanding sugar, and then put your cookies in the fridge or let them stand for a couple of hours so the chocolate can set.
And finally, if you like a subtle glaze rather than frosting, you can mix your frosting with water to thin it out, then coat your desserts. While the glaze is still wet, add your sanding sugar topping, then allow the desserts to set before wrapping them up for storing.