Pearl sugar looks very similar in appearance to the large pieces of salt you might find on a soft pretzel from a pretzel vendor. It is most common in Scandinavian countries, where it makes a pretty topping for many desserts and pastries. It’s a bit hard to find in the US, unless you know where to look. The easiest place to find it, according to most people is at either cake decorating stores or at nearby IKEA® stores, though it’s a guess as to whether a local IKEA will carry it. Another good place to look for it is online; even Amazon carries a few brands, most of them imported from Sweden.
This type of sugar doesn’t really look like pearls, but it does evoke pearl color in its whiteness. It could be best described as “large” granulated sugar. In the manufacturing process, sugar is pressed together to produce bigger grains, usually measuring about .07 inches (2 mm) each. It has more of an oval shape than a round shape, but each individual piece may vary in appearance.
The distinct advantage to pearl sugar if you want to sugar the tops of cooking items is that it tends to withstand a higher heat before melting. If you want to sugar a bit of bread, the pearl sugar won’t melt as it bakes in the oven, and will look the same coming out of the oven as it did going in. Granulated sugar, in contrast, may melt, especially if the baking time on a dessert is long.
Similar products made in the US include various types of coarse sugar, which may be available in brown or bright colors and pastels. Typically pearl sugar is the best choice if you want a white sugar topping for a baked good. One alternative if you don’t have pearl sugar on hand, is to crush up sugar cubes, as suggested by cook and talk show host Rachel Ray, as a quick substitution.
You can use pearl sugar to top any type of sweet bread or pastry. You may also find recipes for Belgian waffles that call for it. If you see recipes asking for nib sugar, be aware this is an alternate name for the sugar.
One popular recipe containing this sugar is the Swedish treat chokladboll. These are unbaked candies that are a mix of powdered cocoa, coffee, oatmeal, and butter, shaped into balls. They can be rolled in pearl sugar, and then additionally rolled in coconut flakes, though if they are topped with coconut, they are occasionally called kokosball.