Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The Mysterious Creation of Peanut Brittle

When I write about new recipes and food items, enjoyment does come from looking back in history, and finding out how it came about. Many origins are straight forward, and then there appears one that boggles the mind.  While researching the origin of peanut brittle, well, the origin stories need to be taken with huge grains of salt.  Alright, maybe the second story is more plausible, but still.

Here goes, the first origin theory goes back to before merry old England was even thought of as England.  The Celts (no, not the Boston Celtics; sometimes I really hate Google) lived during the Iron Age, from about 600 BC to 43 AD; this is when iron was discovered and developed into tools and weapons.  The Iron Age ended when the Romans invaded Britain and set up fortresses, took over established villages, and forced Christian religion and Roman government onto the locals. At that time, the people were not called Celts (that name was given in the 1700s), but the Romans sent back stories of the people they referred to as Druids.

Now here is where the origin becomes a bit mucky.  The Celts, and it is unclear if this is before they were named Celts, or after, thought to have served the brittle during holidays. They made the sheet of candy by baking a mix of sugar and peanut butter. The candy then made its way from Europe to America in the 1830s by way of Irish settlers coming to the New World. However, peanuts are not native to the British lands.  They came to Europe, via Spanish and Portuguese explorers, in the 1500s. They were very popular in Africa and Asia, but did not become popular in the UK until the 1800s.  So, did the Celts, who were not Celts until the 1700s, begin making peanut brittle between the 1500-1600s, or afterwards during the 1700-1800s?  Of course, no one really knows.

Now to the second origin story which takes place in the United States’ deep south.  During the Civil War soldiers survived on peanuts because of its high protein content, were easily transported, and the shells were natural waste.  After the war and the reconstructionism of the south, peanut farming found its niche, and became a huge commodity.  Around the year 1890, a Southern woman (unnamed) created peanut brittle by mistake. Apparently, she was making taffy, added baking soda instead of cream of tartar.  Waste not, want not, she continued cooking the mixture which resulted in a crunchy brittle, instead of a chewy taffy. 

But wait, there is one more story which deals with a “maybe he was, or maybe he was not” a real person in history.  Tom Beaver, a West Virginia woodsman and lumberjack, who was often associated with Paul Bunyan, supposedly created peanut brittle.  A leak had erupted in a dam, and a town was in danger of being flooded, destroyed and many lives lost.  Tom created a goopy concoction of peanuts and molasses, plugged up the leak, and the town and people were saved.  He gave the “recipe” to the people, and they, in turn, cooked it up into a tasty treat.

Originally, peanut brittle began with a sugar and water mixture, but other sugary liquids began to be used; many adding unique flavoring.

What can be used instead for peanut brittle?

 -corn syrup.


- light molasses.

- agave nectar.

-brown rice syrup.

-maple syrup.

One of the most delicious peanut brittles I have ever eaten came from Honeyville, in Durango, Colorado.  It was light, airy, crispy and had such an addicting flavor to it; and nope, the recipe was not available to the public.

After experimenting with an easy recipe, I did find, here were the conclusions.

Honey: A lighter-flavored honey works better, especially if you do not like an aggressive honey flavor.  

Texture: While it is initially a crispy candy, even stored in an air-tight container, the candy does soften up into a smooth treat that does not stick to the teeth when eaten.  A huge plus!

Samples were given out, and not one complaint; instead, the recipe was requested.  Whether completely crunchy, or it has softened up, I am declaring this peanut brittle a winner!

Hint: With the recipe I will share, it calls for two cups of honey.  To obtain, and keep, that crunchy texture that most enjoy, use one cup honey with one cup corn syrup instead.


 Honey Peanut Brittle



2 cups honey

1⁄4 cup water

1 and 1⁄2 cups raw peanuts (roasted and salted nuts can be used, skip 1/8 tsp. salt))

1and 1⁄2 Tbsp. butter

2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. vanilla

1⁄8 tsp. salt (skip if roasted and salted nuts used)



Line a large rimmed baking sheet (aka jelly roll pan) with baking parchment paper, a silicone baking liner, or butter very well. 


Combine the honey and the water in a 3-quart saucepan.  Boil, on medium-high heat, until it reaches the hard crack stage; remove from heat. (See Notes).





Add the rest of the ingredients; mix thoroughly.  Pour mixture from saucepan onto sheet, spreading thinly.  Wait until brittle is hardened and totally cool to the touch (20-30 minutes); break into pieces.


Makes about 2 lbs. or 16 servings of one ounce (about 1/4 cup)





The hard-crack stage is the highest temperature (300° F–310° F) you are likely to see specified in a candy recipe. At these temperatures, there is almost no water left in the syrup.  It will take a good 25-30 minutes to reach the temperature. Drop a little of the molten syrup in cold water and it will form hard, brittle threads that break when bent.

After hardening and cooling, if the brittle is still somewhat soft and sticky, place pan in a preheated 325° F oven for 5 minutes to harden up completely.

Peanuts: Spanish or Virginia. The skins add a deeper nut flavor and a lovely light brown color to the brittle. However, remove half the skins from the peanuts, or the mixture will become too “gunked” up and be difficult to process correctly.   Almonds, Cashews, Pecans, Walnuts or Pepitas can also be used.  With the larger sized nuts, chop up before using.

Mary Cokenour


No comments:

Post a Comment