Submitted Date 05/17/2019

A few days ago, I came home to the wonderful aroma of baking. At first whiff, I could tell Mom had been making cookies, or muffins, or cake…something sweet with a hint of spice. My nose led me into the kitchen and over to the Cool Whip container that's been repurposed as a cookie tin. Lifting the lid, I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. This close to the fresh batch, I could tell what they were without even looking down; Mom's butterscotch brownies. Instantly, I was transported back to my childhood. I remembered the slight crunch as my teeth closed on the flaky surface before sinking into the gooey sweet center. Opening my eyes, I took a quick look around to make sure I wasn't being watched before grabbing the topmost piece. I hadn't tasted these brownies since I was a kid but somehow, more than twenty years later, she'd managed to make them taste exactly the same.

Not only are the taste and aroma of Mom's butterscotch brownies familiar, so is the recipe. And, if memory serves, I'm certain there are no butterscotch chips or extracts in it. If that's the case though, how does she get that distinct butterscotch flavor? Wait a minute, what the heck is "butterscotch" anyway? The butter part seems fairly obvious, but when I hear the word scotch, it conjures images of amber liquor and men in kilts throwing logs. Not that I mind those images, but they're not helping me get any closer to the definition of butterscotch. So, I did what I always do when I have a nagging question; research. I'm fascinated by the history of food, mainly from a botanical perspective, but knowing the long road food has traveled before it reaches my tastebuds somehow makes it more satisfying to consume.

To find out more about butterscotch, I consulted the magic oracle (a.k.a. Google). The results weren't exactly cut and dried. Both the ingredients and the history of this confection are somewhat inconsistent, but let's tackle the easier of the two first. If I was to build a genealogy of butterscotch, I'd put it in the same family as caramel and toffee. All three are made by cooking a lot of sugar, but caramel uses white sugar while the other two use brown sugar. Caramel also has cream in it while butterscotch has butter. Toffee is similar to butterscotch but is cooked longer. Butterscotch can also have treacle or corn syrup added, and a few sources say lemon as well. There's also a difference between butterscotch as a hard candy, as a sauce, and as a flavoring. Things like butterscotch pudding and Buttershots taste like butterscotch but don't have butter and lemon. Instead, they have "flavoring."

The scotch part of butterscotch is a bit less clear. Some sources say that it's because the candy does in fact hail from Scotland, but they go on to say that the first record of butterscotch is from Yorkshire in 1817. Others say the word "scotch" is from the process of scotching or scoring the candy before it's dried to make it easier to break into pieces later. A third, somewhat less convincing explanation is that it means "scorch." Making things even more confusing, butterscotch is referred to as "butterscot" in an 1855 glossary, which makes me think the Scottish source is more valid. One thing is for sure though, butterscotch does not have Scotch alcohol in it.

The lack of a definitive answer to my inquiry about butterscotch is a mite frustrating. I feel on the verge of a massive rabbit hole that would lead me to visit historical archives in Yorkshire and dusty libraries in Scotland. I'd interview grandmothers who speak in antique dialects and fancy confectioners who don't have much time for me and my questions. If there's anyone out there who feels like funding such an expedition, I'm game. Until then, I'll ride the sugar rush from Mom's brownies and fantasize.


For the curious:





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  • Nina Appasamy 5 years, 1 month ago

    This was funny to read and quite interesting. Butterscotch isn't something I would typically think much about, so your piece was both enjoyable and informative. :)

    • Jen Parrilli 5 years, 1 month ago

      Thanks! I've been really curious about food lately, for some reason.

  • No name 5 years, 1 month ago

    Some things in the world should just remain a mystery, haha

    • Jen Parrilli 5 years, 1 month ago

      Thankfully, you can still enjoy butterscotch without knowing what's in it.

  • Miranda Fotia 5 years, 1 month ago

    Interesting! Now I am curious about it too...no money for funding your expedition though :( Best of luck!