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Listening to The Splendid Table today, the first caller asked how to infuse flavors into her marshmallows. The answer provided was essentially to infuse the sugar, by placing herbs, tea, lemon rind, etc, in a sealed container with the sugar for a few days, so that the sugar takes on the desired flavor.

I can see how this would be necessary for flavored marshmallows.

However... around 39:15, the host says:

It's an old trick. Jerry Traunfeld ... mentioned this business about infusing your sugar when you're baking, with any kind of herb you like.

Why would one choose to infuse sugar with an herb while baking, rather than adding the herb directly to the recipe?

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

Adding herbs directly to baked goods usually results in very strong flavours. Infusing the sugar with the herbs gives a more subtle overtone rather than a full-on explosion. In some cases, of course, you might want a strong herb flavour, but where you just want a hint, infusing the sugar is great. The classic example is using stripped vanilla pods to make vanilla sugar, which adds subtle vanilla tones to cakes and meringues.

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Couldn't you just use less if you want a subtle flavour? – Mien Jul 1 '12 at 22:27
Say you want to use a little rosemary, so you chop up a few leaves, then you stir it through the batter, then you divide it into cases. You now have, for example, 4 cakes with a bit of rosemary in and 8 with nothing. Infusing the sugar ensures even distribution of flavour. – ElendilTheTall Jul 2 '12 at 6:35

While the amount of flavor can be a factor, often a bigger factor can be texture, or liquid released from the herbs when adding them directly. For example, when you infuse mint directly into cream, the mint will release enough liquid that the cream will no longer whip properly. Or with a meringue, you would rather have a smooth texture and even coloring rather than having specs of herbs, since there is nothing (other than the sugar) that you can infuse the flavor of the herbs into directly. Another method for adding herb flavor would be to create an extract by infusing the herbs flavor into a liquid (often a type of alcohol since oils can affect baking drastically), then reducing the liquid to intensify the flavor and reduce the amount of liquid necessary.

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+1 for texture ... you don't want a marshmallow w/ flecks of stuff in it. (it's suck when whipping, and folding it in afterwards wouldn't give a consistent flavor through the whole thing) – Joe Feb 26 '13 at 13:41

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