You’ve seen it on Cake Boss. It’s involved in practically every sugar-sculpting piece on the Food network. Even Ferran Adria used it as an impressive vehicle for pistachio and other oils. But what exactly is isomalt?
Essentially isomalt is a sugar substitute, a phrase of which has a dirty connotation. However we’re here to examine the little known ingredients and show you they’re benefits but also how to use them at home or professional platform. So substituting isomalt for sugar has texture benefits, increased storage life, and also cuts down on caloric intakes, as well as making for endless culinary possibilities.
Digging into a beet salad at Bistro Europa featuring beets 5 ways led me to really explore the vegetable in a variety of ways. Raw it had an irony flavor with a great crunch, pickled it offered a sour foil with underlying sweetness, and roasted delivered an intense sweetness that only this humble root vegetable could deliver. Knowing that isomalt is derived from beet sugars, this sweetness is something I was expecting and not feeling any calorie guilt. Isomalt features only 2 calories per gram, or roughly half the calories all-purpose sugar contains. It is low on the glycemic index, making it a handy ingredient for those with type 1 and 2 diabetes. Isomalt’s conversion to glucose occurs at a slower rate than sugar, giving it a bump up again for those whom having a sugar “spike” is a risk. It also doesn’t cause cavities because plaque will not break it down into acid in the mouth. Takes a bit of the villainy of the phrase “sugar substitute” away, no?
Now that we got the public service announcements are out of the way, we can get to championing the ingredient for its culinary uses. Isomalt granules and powder react virtually the same, with the powder melting into a clear sugar coat more readily because of the expanded surface area. I like to use it to simply candy nuts. Again, it doesn’t feel as sweet on the palette, so savory uses it gives an edge to sugar with the same usage of 1:1. With pre-toasted nuts and a weight of 20% isomalt to nuts (200 grams of nuts to 40g isomalt for example) simply melt the isomalt in a dry pan over medium heat until transparent. Add the toasted nuts to the pan and stir with a wooden spoon to coat. Season with salt, if desired, and transfer to a parchment lined pan or dry plate. Your clear sugar coated nuts are now ready for consumption. Take that recipe idea, and mold it to your taste by lowering or raising the sugar levels, adding a touch of water at the end to steam your candied items through, perhaps a knob of butter for softness. Substitute nuts for spices, seeds, and the candying ideas are limitless. Account for the fact that isomalt has a low hydroscopicity, meaning that it doesn’t readily absorb water or humidity, and your candied nuts can maintain their crunch longer than standard candied nuts. Also it is much more difficult to crystallize the converted sugar than standard sugar due to its increased strength of structure.
Isomalt can also work well to make sugar tuiles that resemble glass. It melts around 150 degrees Celsius, so if you lightly dust it into a mold it will melt together to form the pattern of that mold. While still transparent and warm you can “singe” or dust a seasoning over top to flavor, or inlay an herb. On acetate the tuile will be paper thin, crunchy, not overly sweet, as well firmer. Take the idea that it sets up to a crunch with less sugar and consider adding it to marinades in place of sugar. It dissolves easily in marinades and liquids and the results can yield a grilled piece of beef with more crispiness on the exterior.
Famed chef Ferran Adria of the now shuttered restaurant El Bulli in Roses, Spain, introduced the ingredient in a variety of ways. The most famous of which, and perhaps thought provoking, was its use as a vehicle for oil. Melt the isomalt until transparent in a narrow sautoir, or two-inch tall pot. Dip a ring mold and when the sugar starts to “ribbon” or stick to the mold without immediately falling off, it will be ready. Drip a teaspoon, or desired amount, into the center of your roughly 2” diameter wide ring mold with isomalt covering the surface. The sugar will fall, creating a womb of sorts for the oil. Use shears to cut away the sugar, and allow to cool. This sugar bomb can now be consumed, assuming you were able to keep the tip thin enough for consumption, as is. Another level idea is to use it as soup garnish. Perhaps use pumpkin seed oil in your squash bisque, poured tableside, the oil will melt in the hot soup adding the perfume and flavor of the oil as well as the subtle sugar of the isomalt.
Take this ingredient beyond surface level and let your imagination wander. You’ll be surprised with what you can do with sugar.
Isomalt in large doses can upset certain consumer’s stomachs.