Cotton candy is a spun sugar confection that resembles cotton.
In France it’s called “la barbe à papa,” which means “papa’s beard,” and in Italy it’s “zucchero filato,” or “sugar thread.” There’s also “spookasem” (“ghost breath”) in Afrikaans, and in other languages like Hindi and Greek, the term for cotton candy more or less translates to “old woman’s hair.”
Cotton candy is a popular food at carnivals, amusement parks, fairgrounds or circuses. Its fibrous texture makes it unique among sugar confectioneries.
With cotton candy, sugar is heated up until it melts into a liquid, then spun around at high speeds to force the liquid sugar out a series of small holes. As the sugar liquid spins through these holes, it cools rapidly. The result is a lot of long, skinny “strings” of sugar that clump together on a cone or a stick.
When spun, cotton candy is white because it is made from sugar, but adding dye or coloring transforms the color. Originally, cotton candy was just white.
Several places claim the origin of cotton candy, with some sources tracing it to a form of spun sugar found in Europe in the 19th century. At that time, spun sugar was an expensive, labor-intensive endeavor and was not generally available to the average person.
Others suggest versions of spun sugar originated in Italy as early as the 15th century.
In the 16th century, court confectioners had spun sugar into threads to decorate lavish desserts and make extravagant ornaments for the table. In her cookbook The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769), Elizabeth Raffald includes a recipe for a “silver web” and one for a “gold web” made from spun sugar. The great French chef Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833) was particularly adept at working with spun sugar and shared his innovative techniques in his influential manuals.
Still, spun sugar was tricky and labor-intensive, and it remained—until the advent of the cotton-candy machine— a snack or dessert of the leisured rich.
Machine-spun cotton candy was invented in 1897 by dentist William Morrison and confectioner John C. Wharton, and first introduced to a wide audience at the 1904 World’s Fair as “Fairy Floss”, with great success, selling 68,655 boxes at 25¢ (equivalent to $7.11 in 2019) per box.
On September 6, 1905, Albert D. Robinson of Lynn, Massachusetts submitted his patent for an Electric Candy-Spinning Machine. The patent was for a combination of an electronic starter, motor-driven rotatable bowl, that maintained heating efficiently. By May 1907 he transferred the rights to the General Electric Company of New York. His patent still remains today as the basic Cotton Candy machine.
However, the first cotton candy machines were unreliable. They rattled loudly and often broke down. In 1949, Gold Medal Products of Cincinnati, Ohio, introduced a spring base for the machines that helped.
Due to the lack of automated machines that could produce enough products for widespread distribution prior to the 1970s, cotton candy was only produced on a small scale. Then, in 1972, a cotton candy machine for automatic manufacture and packaging was patented. It allowed the mass production of cotton candy.
Tootsie Roll of Canada Ltd., the world’s largest cotton-candy manufacturer, makes a fluffy stuff, fruit-flavored version of cotton candy.
Today, cotton candy is available in many different flavors including banana, raspberry, vanilla, watermelon, and chocolate. Both artificial and natural flavors may be used for the production of these flavors.
In the US, two flavor-blend colors predominate — blue raspberry and pink vanilla, both originally formulated by the Gold Medal brand.
Overall, a stick of cotton candy is around 110 calories.
The longest cotton candy measures 1,400 m (4,593 ft 2 in) and was achieved by Kocaeli Fuar Müdürlügü in Izmit, Kocaeli, Turkey, on 10 July 2009. The candyfloss weighed 300 kg. 70 of Kocaeli Fuar Müdürlügü staff participated in making the candyfloss in 6 hours.
The tallest cotton candy measures 5.45 m (17 ft 10.57 in) and was organised by SV Feldkirchen-Mitterhartshausen eV in association with Abenteuer Leben, Kabel Eins (both Germany), in Feldkirchen bei Straubing, Germany, on 13 July 2013.
Similar confections include the Korean Kkul-tarae and the Persian pashmak.
In the United States, National Cotton Candy Day is celebrated on December 7.