Salty with sweet is in, and probably won't be going out anytime soon. From Fran's sea salt flavored caramels, to salted chocolate from Salazon, to the Bacon Maple Bar at Voodoo Doughnut, the practice of incorporating both Sodium Chloride (NaCl) and Sucrose (C12H22O11) in snacks and desserts is tres chic.
But think back to the very first time you ever tasted salt and sweet together in one bite. More likely than not it was peanut brittle, the original salty-sweet confection, and perhaps the first all-American confection ever made.
One legend has it that around 1890, a woman living in the South was making a batch of taffy in her home kitchen and a simple ingredient mix-up led her to invent peanut brittle by accident. Instead of adding cream of tartar to her taffy, as the recipe instructed, she absentmindedly threw in some baking soda. Realizing her mistake but disappointed by the waste of ingredients, she gave her failed taffy concoction a quick taste and was delighted by it! She added peanuts so that her creation would have a consistency and crunch distinct from taffy, and we've been making peanut brittle (on purpose) like this ever since.
Others maintain that peanut brittle was brought to America from across the pond. Some say peanut brittle began as a Celtic dessert. It's documented that many found it delicious to combine sugar and peanuts. As time went on, they started pouring syrup on their peanuts to make them seriously sweeter. When Irish immigrants came to America, they brought their culture and cuisine along with them—preparing their peanut brittle reminded them of home. The story goes that peanut brittle caught on particularly well in their new country because peanuts were so easy to grow in the deep South.
Peanut brittle also pops up in Southern folk lore. The popular fable character Tony Beaver, an enormous Paul Bunyan-esque hero, was said to have stopped a flood by dumping peanuts and molasses from a crop surplus into a river. Not only were the civilians saved from a swift and watery death, but they also got to go home and try combining those ingredients themselves to make dessert (If you want to read more Tony Beaver stories check out Margaret Montague's 1928 book, Up Eel River).
No matter how it began, it's clear that peanut brittle has emerged as an American favorite. It even makes a cameo appearance in Hasbro's Candyland board game, where Gramma Nut lives in a little house fashioned entirely out of peanut brittle!
Check out our recipe from The Peanut Butter & Co. Cookbook, which adds peanut butter to the ingredient list for an interesting twist.
Do you like peanut brittle? What other sweet and salty snacks do you enjoy?
About the author: Lee Zalben was a PB&J-loving kid that grew up to be the founder and president of Peanut Butter & Co., which began as a Greenwich Village sandwich shop serving nothing but peanut butter sandwiches and expanded to include the now-famous line of all natural flavored peanut butter. Lee is a graduate of Vassar College and enjoys traveling the world in search of interesting foods made with peanuts, tree nuts, and seeds. When he's not working, eating, flying or writing, he enjoys scuba diving and training elephants.