All About Sprinkles, Sanding Sugar, Pearl Sugar, and Other Sparkling Cookie Decorations
William Shakespeare once wrote, "All that glitters is not gold," but when it comes to cookie decorating, we respectfully disagree. Decorating sugars and sprinkles add sheen, sparkle, and texture to cookies while being super easy to use—as in they're great for the low-maintenance cookie baker in all of us who doesn't feel like busting out the piping tips this year. Here's a run-down of all things sweet and shimmery.
Translucent and sparkly, this is glitter in sugar form. Thanks to a coarser grain that reflects light, sanding sugar is an easy way to add glitz and glamour to simple sugar cookies, and a great option for when you want to create a little holiday magic, like with our "snow-topped" gingerbread trees. Sanding sugar can withstand the heat of the oven without dissolving, so it can be applied to shaped cookie dough (or rolled in the sugar if you're working with balls of dough). If you wanted to use it on baked cookies, either sprinkle it on freshly frosted cookies or brush cooled cookies with an egg white-wash before applying so the sugar will stay put. Uses for sanding sugar go way beyond the cookie—from cupcakes to holiday cocktails, it won't be hard to use up the jar!
You can find sanding sugar in a few different colors at most grocery stores, but a craft store like Michael's or online retailers like Amazon will offer a wider variety of colors and sizes. Not all brands label their products as sanding sugar, but it's a safe bet that any colored sugar advertised for decorating is some form of sanding sugar.
Nonpareils—which have been around for so long they have an old-fashioned candy named after them—typically come in bright, primary colors and range from tiny, like a grain of kosher salt, to medium in size, like a peppercorn. Made from sugar and starch, these will bring a sweet crunch (and a whole lot of whimsy) to cookies. Little nonpareils are great for indiscriminately shaking over something like spritz cookies and popping in the oven, making them an excellent decorating choice for when you have small helpers in the kitchen. Just don't mix them into things like batters and soft cookie doughs—the colors will bleed.
Like sanding sugar, these are standard fare in the baking aisle of most supermarkets, but colors may be limited to just a few options. For more variety, seek them out at craft stores or online.
Sugar Pearls and Dragèes
While these two may share the "cute, classy, and bobbly" category, there are a couple of key differences to be aware of. Living up to their name, sugar pearls most often come in muted, neutral colors with a pearlescent sheen on the outside. Dragées (pronounced drah-zhay), on the other hand, are metallic and shiny, and because of their coating, the FDA advises that you don't eat them, which is why we recommend against using these on cookies. Sugar pearls can be very hard—to avoid a toothache, apply them sparingly and after baking to a well-frosted cookie or cake, and give it a chance to soften before eating. They are excellent for adding an intentional pop of color and enhancing the theme of a cut-out cookie, as shown in our wreath cookies and Christmas tree cookies.
Some higher end grocery stores may carry sugar pearls, but your best bet is heading straight to the baking aisle of an arts and crafts store or purchasing them online. Sugar pearls can sometimes be found in metallic colors, too. To avoid confusing them with dragées, check labels carefully for statements like, "for decoration only."
Quins for short, these are just like sprinkles in texture and flavor, but boast an even bigger personality. They come in a large variety of eye-catching shapes, sizes, and colors, and add instant pizazz to cookies. Stars, trees, snowflakes, hearts… you name it, there's probably a quin for it. Quins run the risk of losing their shape a little when baked, so if you're wanting a super clean look, sprinkle them on your baked cookies after frosting.
These are widely available in grocery store, especially during the holiday season. For the best selection of shapes and colors, head to a craft store or online at places like fancysprinkles.com or Amazon.
This specialty product is a superfine powder that comes in a range of colors—usually metallic—and while it isn't sweet, it's perfectly edible. Luster dust will give cookies a professional polish, so if you're looking to standout at the cookie swap, take note. Apply luster dust after baking. For a barely-there, subtle shimmer, apply luster dust to cookies with a dry paintbrush. For a more pronounced color and more matte finish, mix in just enough of a clear alcohol like vodka until it becomes the consistency of paint. Then apply on cookies with a paintbrush.