Peanut brittle was one of those candies we always had around the house when I was kid because my dad was obsessed with it. Though I would sneak a bite of it every now and then (I was more of a chocolate guy than a peanut brittle guy), my dad would nibble on it nearly every night after dinner as we watched TV and serve it whenever it was our time to host “bridge club” with his friends.
But of course, it turns out that peanut brittle has a history that goes much farther back than the mid-1980s.
THE HISTORY OF PEANUT BRITTLE
Stella Parks, in her cookbook BraveTart, says one of the earliest peanut brittle recipes dates to 1843 from a Philadelphia woman named Deborah Fisher who sold “the Original Pea or Groundnut Candy” in her 8th street shop. Recipes for peanut brittle evolved using molasses as an ingredient, and the Boston cookbook The Art of Confectionery mentions adding baking soda “to render it tender.”
Other stories on the Internet say that peanut brittle was a Southern invention, made by an unknown woman in 1890 who accidentally used baking soda instead of cream of tartar when trying to make taffy. Its popularity is often associated with the American south—most of the country’s peanut farms are located in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama.
HOW TO MAKE PEANUT BRITTLE
Homemade brittle is actually fairly easy. Start by placing sugar, corn syrup, and water in a large saucepan and heating it to make a caramel—which happens when sugar is heated to a specific temperature, melts and starts to decompose.
Once the caramel is ready, add baking soda (see below for why!), and then the peanuts. Pour the entire mixture onto a pan and spread out it while it’s still liquid (and hot).
As the candy cools, it hardens and becomes brittle. Once totally cooled, it can be broken into smaller pieces to enjoy!
The Role of Baking Soda
The introduction of baking soda to the molten caramel is what differentiates brittle from standard hard caramel candy.
The baking soda reacts with the caramel in its liquid state, aerating it and producing tiny pockets of air as it cools and solidifies. This results in a treat that is, well, brittle in nature.
DO YOU REALLY NEED CORN SYRUP?
This peanut brittle specifically uses corn syrup to make keep it smooth and keep the sugar from crystalizing. Often, making caramel can be a scary thing, not only because you’re cooking over direct heat (which can potentially cause the sugar to burn) but also because caramel candy can sometimes develop a gritty graininess.
Grittiness can happen when a stray sugar crystal doesn’t melt properly or is introduced while the caramel is cooking. The stray crystal causes the surrounding sugar to crystallize, resulting that gritty texture once the caramel has cooled.
The water added initially to the pot helps dissolve all the sugar to reduce this risk, while corn syrup interferes with crystals forming as well. These two things combined will ensure you have a smooth caramel.
I don’t recommend substituting honey, molasses or agave for the corn syrup. Those other liquid sugars have impurities that will burn at the higher temperature of making caramel, leading to a bitter tasting brittle.
WHEN (AND WHEN NOT) TO STIR THE CARAMEL
Make sure stir the mixture at the beginning of cooking to dissolve all the sugar. However, do NOT stir the caramel mixture once the butter and sugar have dissolved (if you stir it after the water has boiled off, you could create graininess).
If you are concerned about whether or not the caramel is cooking evenly, just swirl the pan a little bit to stir it. But don’t use a spoon or any utensil.
HOW TO KNOW WHEN THE BRITTLE IS READY
Using a candy thermometer is recommended — cook it to 340°F. But if you don’t have one, don’t let that stop you from making peanut brittle!
You want to cook the molten sugar until it reaches the color of an older penny.
You have a little leeway on the temperature, but if you are relying on color alone, I’d recommend cooking the sugar at a lower heat. It will take longer but you’ll have more of a cushion with the timing; you don’t want the caramel to burn and become bitter.
SUGGESTIONS AND SUBSTITUTIONS FOR PEANUT BRITTLE
Peanut brittle is an easy candy recipe to adapt to your own taste. Feel free to substitute a different type of nut, such as pistachio or hazelnut, for the peanuts. Just chop the nuts to the size of peanuts if they are large.
You can also dip the cooled and broken brittle into melted chocolate if you like!
STORING AND FREEZING PEANUT BRITTLE
Store the peanut brittle in a zip-topped bag or an airtight container. Humidity and moisture are its enemy, so keep it as airtight as possible. You can also layer the brittle between parchment or wax paper so it doesn’t stick together. As long as you keep the brittle in an airtight container, it should last for up to 3 weeks.
You can freeze it for longer storage (up to 3 months) in an airtight container.
MORE HOLIDAY TREATS TO TRY!
Updated December 2, 2019 : We spiffed up this post to make it sparkle! No changes to the original recipe.