It seems there are as many different ways to say "sprinkle" as there are (sugar) stars in the sky. But understanding the differences among all these sweet goodies, and when and how to use each kind, can make dessert projects even more fun.
Here, then, is my field guide to the many shapes, sizes, colors and moods of the colorful confection everyone loves.
Also called nonpareils, these are teeny-tiny balls in a rainbow of hues. Nonpareils means “without equal” in French, which is exactly what desserts became in the late 18th century when they were first topped with these delicate decorations. Confusingly, nonpareil is also the name of a chocolate disk or morsel dipped in, um, nonpareils.
The British have their own term for these orbs: hundreds-and-thousands. This is possibly the cutest way to say sprinkle.
These little guys are made by extruding sugar paste into long, skinny ropes and shaking them to break the strands apart into mini tubes; a coating of confectioners’ glaze or wax adds shine and makes these sprinkles a little slower to “bleed” color than nonpareils.
In some parts of the United States, particularly Pennsylvania and the Northeast, this type of sprinkle (the chocolate flavor in particular) is referred to as a jimmy. Legend holds that the nickname goes back to the 1930s, when Just Born Candy Company in Pennsylvania — famed for Peeps candy — began producing sprinkles. The machine operator was a fellow named (wait for it...) Jimmy.
A dragée is a confection with a hard outer shell; the name comes from a medicinal term for sugar-coated pills. Really, any candy-coated garnish could be considered a dragée, from Jordan almonds to M&M’s. But when it comes to cake, most people will probably think of tiny colored or even metallic-toned dragées resembling ball bearings.
This brings up a fascinating question: Are metallic-toned dragées really OK to eat? Depends who you ask. In the past, the USDA has deemed them inedible, and they are sometimes sold with a notice that they are for decorative purposes only. Perhaps this is because at a certain time, the silver finish contained mercury, although this is no longer the case.
This is a type of crystal sugar that is translucent, and is often available in a variety of colors and even metallics. It’s got a larger grain than white sugar, but is still fairly delicate; the texture is almost like glitter. It has a nice light crunch when added to the top of cakes or cookies.
Sanding sugar’s older sibling. It’s also translucent and available in many colors, but the crystals are much larger and coarser.
These are relatively large, crunchy, opaque white spheres (but not quite perfect circles) of sugar. This type of sprinkle can resemble a coarse sea salt, but one taste will tell you it’s definitely not. You’ll often see this type of sprinkle on sweet breads such as brioches, braided loaves or even croissants.
On St. Patrick’s Day, you probably want a mini sugar shamrock on your cupcake; on Valentine's Day you gotta have a heart. For just about any other occasion you can get suns, moons, stars, animals and more.