What is burnt sugar used for?

Burnt sugar, also known as caramelized sugar, is granulated sugar that has been heated to high temperatures until it begins to melt, caramelize and take on a brown color. It has a rich, nutty, bittersweet flavor and is used as an ingredient in a variety of desserts, confections, sauces, glazes and more. Here’s an overview of some of the most common uses of burnt sugar.

Caramel Making

One of the most well-known uses of burnt sugar is for making caramel. Caramel is made by heating granulated sugar until it liquefies, browns and takes on a sweet, buttery flavor. The heat causes the sugar molecules to break down and re-form into hundreds of new compounds that give caramel its distinctive taste. Burnt sugar is essential for achieving the rich brown color and depth of flavor in caramel candies, sauces, fruits, creams and more.

Flavor Enhancer

The rich, toasted, slightly bitter notes of burnt sugar make it a popular ingredient for enhancing and rounding out the flavors of sweet and savory dishes. It is used to add a layer of flavor complexity and depth to:

  • Cakes, cookies and pastries
  • Puddings, custards and flans
  • Fruit desserts like cobblers, crisps and compotes
  • Ice cream and sorbet
  • Coffee and espresso drinks
  • Barbecue sauces, glazes and marinades
  • Savory sauces and gravies
  • Meat stews, braises and chilies

Just a teaspoon or two of burnt sugar can enhance the overall flavor profile of both sweet and savory recipes.

Browning and Coloring Agent

In addition to flavoring, burnt sugar is added to recipes for its dramatic browning and coloring effect. The deep brown hues add appetizing color to:

  • Crème brûlée
  • Flan
  • Fruit tarts
  • Cakes and frostings
  • Baked goods like cinnamon rolls and sticky buns
  • Fried doughs like beignets and churros

Sprinkling a topping of burnt sugar over custards, cream-based desserts or anything you want to brown is an easy way to add appetizing color.

Texture and Crispness

When burnt sugar is used as a coating or topping, it can provide a delicate crunch and texture contrast. Examples include:

  • Crème brûlée, where a layer of hardened burnt sugar provides a crispy contrast to the creamy custard.
  • Burnt sugar Tuiles cookies that have a crispy, wafer-like texture.
  • Crunchy burnt sugar toppings on puddings, custards and ice cream.
  • The brittle, crackling crust on crème caramel.

So whether you want a delicate crunch or a shatteringly crispy texture, burnt sugar can deliver.

Moisture Prevention

Covering baked goods and other foods with a topping of burnt sugar can help prevent moisture from escaping. This is why it’s used on items like:

  • Crème brûlée
  • Flan
  • Bread puddings
  • Rice puddings

The burnt sugar forms an airtight seal over the food, locking in moisture for a lusciously creamy texture.

Preserving and Sealing

Similar to moisture prevention, burnt sugar can also be used to seal and preserve foods. Before refrigeration existed, burnt sugar was often used to seal and sterilize jams, jellies, fruits and more. The burnt sugar formed an airtight seal when layered over hot preserves, preventing recontamination. It is still sometimes used today for:

  • Sealing jars of homemade jams and jellies
  • Creating a protective layer over fresh fruits like grapes, figs or cherries before drying them
  • Preserving cut apples and pears by caramelizing their cut surfaces

While no longer essential for preservation, burnt sugar coatings can help extend the shelf life of certain delicate or porous foods.

Decorative Element

With its glossy sheen and eye-catching golden brown hues, burnt sugar adds visual appeal as a decorative element. It can be used to decorate:

  • Cakes
  • Cookies
  • Pastries
  • Tarts
  • Puddings
  • Mousses
  • Ice cream sundaes
  • Other desserts

Drizzled artfully over a dessert, burnt sugar adds aesthetic flair to the presentation. It also adds contrast and enhances the visual appeal of plated dishes.

How to Make Burnt Sugar

Making burnt sugar is a simple process that only requires granulated sugar and heat:

  1. Place 1 cup of granulated sugar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat.
  2. As the sugar begins melting, gently swirl the pan to incorporate any dry sugar lumps.
  3. Allow the sugar to continue cooking until it takes on a golden amber color.
  4. Once sufficiently browned, immediately remove from heat.
  5. Allow burnt sugar to cool and thicken slightly before using or pouring into a heat-safe container to store.

The sugar must reach temperatures of 320-360°F to sufficiently caramelize. Use care when cooking, as the melted sugar is extremely hot.
Wear gloves when handling the pan. For a deeper flavor, cook slightly longer for darker color. For safety, cook over medium heat and watch closely to prevent burning.

Tips for Making Burnt Sugar

  • Use a heavy-bottomed pan to prevent scorching and allow even cooking.
  • Avoid stirring excessively once sugar starts melting.
  • Brush down any sugar crystals on the sides of the pan with water to prevent crystallization.
  • Have all other ingredients measured and ready before starting.
  • Remove from heat promptly when fully browned.

How to Use Burnt Sugar

Once cooled and thickened slightly, burnt sugar can be used immediately as an ingredient or garnish. Common uses include:

  • Drizzling: Spoon into a plastic bag and snip a corner to drizzle artfully over cakes, ice cream, etc.
  • Mixing In: Stir a tablespoon or two into batter or frostings for flavor and color.
  • Dipping: Dip fruits or baked goods into burnt sugar to coat.
  • Topping: Sprinkle or spread over finished desserts.
  • Glazing: Mix with liquids or fats to make a pourable glaze.

For the best consistency, use burnt sugar while still warm. If cooled completely, gently reheat to soften before drizzling or incorporating. Store extra in an airtight container. Reheat later with a little water to use again.

Burnt Sugar Substitutes

In a pinch, several ingredients can mimic the flavor and appearance of burnt sugar:

  • Brown sugar: Will add color and some caramel/molasses flavors.
  • Maple syrup: Has a brown color and rich, somewhat bitter notes.
  • Honey: Also has an amber color and toasted, slightly bitter flavors.
  • Molasses: Provides deep, bittersweet caramelized sugar taste.
  • Corn syrup: Adds glossy sheen and sweetness, though little flavor.

When substituting, you may need to tweak other ingredients in the recipe to account for differences in sweetness, moisture and flavor.

Common Burnt Sugar Desserts

Here are some delicious ways that burnt sugar is used as a star ingredient in desserts:

Crème Brûlée

The quintessential burnt sugar dessert. A crisp topping of hardened caramelized sugar over a creamy vanilla custard.

Burnt Sugar Cake

A caramel or butter cake made extra rich with burnt sugar swirled into the batter before baking.

Burnt Sugar Ice Cream

Vanilla or caramel ice cream flavored with a smoky, bittersweet burnt sugar taste.

Burnt Sugar Pudding

Rich chocolate or vanilla pudding topped with a layer of burnt sugar that forms a brittle crust.

Burnt Sugar Tuiles

Thin, crispy burnt sugar cookies that can be shaped while warm into rolled cones or curved shapes.

Burnt Sugar Tart

A filled tart covered with a burnt sugar crust that bakes into a crispy, crackling top.

Experiment with adding burnt sugar to your favorite dessert recipes. Even a spoonful stirred into a cake batter, frosting or fruit filling adds wonderful flavor complexity and aroma.

Savory Uses for Burnt Sugar

While best known in desserts, burnt sugar also adds its signature caramelized flavor to savory dishes like these:

Burnt Sugar Barbecue Sauce

Adds deep, bittersweet notes to the tangy, spicy sauce.

Burnt Sugar Chicken Wings

Tossed in a Chinese-style burnt sugar glaze for irresistible flavor.

Burnt Sugar Salmon

Glazed with a coating of soy sauce, spices and burnt sugar then broiled.

Burnt Sugar Chili

A spoonful lends warmth and richness to beef, turkey or vegetarian chili.

Burnt Sugar Fried Rice

Toasted burnt sugar adds a subtle bitterness and savory element.

Try getting creative with adding a touch of burnt sugar to sauces, marinades, glazes and more for a flavor boost.

Storing and Handling Burnt Sugar

To retain optimal flavor and workability, store burnt sugar properly:

  • Storage: Keep in an airtight glass jar or container at room temperature up to 2 months.
  • Refrigeration: For longer shelf life, store in the refrigerator up to 6 months.
  • Freezing: Can be frozen in an airtight container up to 1 year. Thaw before using.
  • Reheating: Place container in a pan of simmering water, stir frequently until softened and pourable.

When handling burnt sugar:

  • Exercise caution, as it can remain extremely hot after cooking.
  • Allow to cool and thicken slightly before use.
  • Wear gloves or use utensils to protect hands from burns.
  • Do not touch face or eyes when working with hot burnt sugar.

Take care when making and handling to prevent injuries from the very high temperatures.

Creative Uses for Leftover Burnt Sugar

Don’t let leftover burnt sugar go to waste! Save any extra and get creative with these unique uses:

Burnt Sugar Body Scrub

Mix with coconut oil or almond oil for a luxurious, sweet-smelling scrub.

Burnt Sugar Candles

Stir into melted wax to infuse candles with a warm, caramel aroma.

Burnt Sugar Face Mask

Combines with yogurt or egg for an aromatic facial treat.

Burnt Sugar Lip Scrub

Exfoliates and softens lips with a homemade scrub of burnt sugar and coconut oil.

Burnt Sugar Tequila Cocktail

Rim glasses with burnt sugar for a take on a smoky margarita.

With its versatility, you’ll never want to waste a drop of leftover burnt sugar!

Is Burnt Sugar Bad for You?

In moderation, burnt sugar can be enjoyed as part of an overall balanced diet. Some considerations on its health effects include:

  • Highly concentrated sugars like burnt sugar provide empty calories and little nutrition.
  • The antioxidants created through caramelization may provide minor health benefits.
  • Burnt sugary foods should be occasional treats, not everyday indulgences.
  • Consuming large amounts frequently can lead to weight gain and associated issues.
  • Those with diabetes need to monitor carb and sugar intake from burnt sugar.

Overall, burnt sugar is fine for most people when portion sizes are controlled and consumption is moderate. Its rich flavor means a little goes a long way toward providing sweetness for recipes and desserts.


With its rich caramelized flavor and versatile uses, burnt sugar is a delightful ingredient that can enhance both sweet and savory recipes. Use its flavor-boosting and coloring capabilities to take desserts, sauces, candies and more to the next level. With proper storage, any excess burnt sugar can also be saved for creative uses like candles or cocktails. So don’t be afraid to burn some sugar and explore the possibilities!

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