So you planned to make some DIY Liège wafels for the long weekend and the recipe called for the hallmark ingredient - Belgian Pearl Sugar - what exactly do you look for? It’s definitely become more popularized in the US and easier to find in the last 10 years. Pearl sugar is made in Belgium and essentially a crunchy chunk of condensed beet sugar that aims to provide a sweet crunch in every other bite of your yeast-risen Belgian Liège-style waffles.
There are a few types going by the name of Pearl Sugar: Belgian and Swedish Pearl Sugar.
Belgium produces two types of pearl sugar: Couplet & Tirlemont. Overall, Couplet sugar sticks less and sustains a higher heat temperature. It is made by mixing a sugar syrup with dry sugar be for it dries and is broken down into the target size (0.5-0.8mm). Unlike Tirlemont, Couplet doesn’t use high pressure machinery in processing and the product produces less dust, which often causes the break-down of the pearls during handling and travel. Overall, Couplet offers a product that is less sticky (to the waffle irons) and one that maintains its shape better - an understandably superior product. Swedish pearl sugar is a second-rate option for Liège waffles that might be used in the event you can’t find pearl sugar. Swedish sugar is much smaller than pearl sugar and generally used as toppings for pastries. Think of the salt you see on pretzels in sugar form. Swedish sugar comes in roughly the size of the larger salt flakes on pretzels at your local Biergarten, a much different product than Belgian Pearl Sugar.
Which one is best?
Couplet is the best because it can withstand higher temperatures, which means the caramelization within the Liège waffle dough is far improved. It also happens to be better for clean-up because it is far less sticky than Tirlemont on the waffle irons.
Can you make your own?
You can make your own on the cheap, immediate solution, though it won’t really give you the true Belgian waffle experience.
You can use loose cane sugar or sugar cubes. The problem with cane sugar is that it is not as fine as beet sugar and its “pearl” formation provides the wrong texture and the wrong caramelization ability. However, you can try and it works to a degree when you’re desperate.
Sugar cubes are probably easiest because all you need to do is use a mallet to crush them up into the desired size.
Using cane sugar takes a bit longer. In fact, when doing our own R&D on Vafels early on in 2017-2018, we used this when we were out of pearl sugar to test our recipes. Add a thin layer of cane sugar into a non-stick pan and heat at Med-High heat setting on a stove-top. Next, sprinkle some water by the tablespoon into the pan, as it heats and stir. It’s best to add water by small amounts because as the sugar heats, it will bind together and then start to dry out, getting closer to that crunchy texture we’re chasing. Stir, add small amounts of water and break up the forming crystals occasionally for about 15 minutes.
These serve as substitutes for pearl sugar when you’re in a pinch, but again, I wouldn’t recommend it if trying to make authentic Liège waffles because the texture will be off.
I hope this helps you understand the ingredients of authentic Belgian Waffles better! It’s definitely best to opt for Couplet Pearl Sugar when possible - which is what Vafels uses, exclusively.