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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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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
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    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
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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.

  • +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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There's another reason for using infused sugar, and that's complexity - preparing the sugar would let one deal with a single more complex (and more predictable) ingredient, instead of more than one individual ingredient.

So, if I had, say, orange peel sugar - I don't need to have orange zest on hand (or have to dig it out of wherever it may be hiding) if I want just a bit of orange flavor. Not to mention the difference between fresh and dried zest... I'd think a sugar made with fresh peel would be closer to fresh zest, than the dried zest from the spice rack, which is even trickier to have on hand exactly when one needs it.

And I could make a larger batch of orange sugar, and use it for several things, making it even more convenient to add just a hint of orange flavor wherever I'd like. If I wanted to use just a touch of zest, I would have to measure carefully, and mix carefully, each time... and being a bit offset in ratios and amounts of intense spices like zest could produce very noticeable differences, moreso than being a bit off in a bulkier and subtler ingredient like infused sugar.

Additionally, I could well make more complex infusions - like a citrus sugar with lemon and lime and orange zest, or an orange-and-vanilla combo, or, well, most any combination. This is again, a convenient and predictable flavor profile, instead of digging out multiple separate ingredients, and measuring a precise ratio for a very small amount (to get a subtle flavor). And with more complex ratios, it's easier to get a small but noticeable change, like this recipe tastes a little more lemony than citrusy, must've dropped in a half-pinch more zest. Or oh, this one's heavy on the vanilla, can hardly taste the orange.

Then, too, especially for more complex combinations, flavors that hold together for a longer time taste different from a simple mixture, when the flavors are given a chance to meld and mellow - the same basic concept behind long-cooking foods like beans or stew getting better for sitting longer, or other foods that age well together. A sugar infused with lemon-lime-orange, will come together with a single taste that's more smooth, or maybe more overall-citrusy, than tasting the individual hints of lemon and lime and orange zests in a different recipe.

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