What Is Cowboy Candy And How Do You Eat It?

The rough and tumble lifestyle of the cowboy has led to its name being slapped onto several rustic dishes, like cowboy cookies, cowboy chili, cowboy caviar, and even cowboy butter. Each of these treats has its own devoted fandom, and the cowboy name has come to denote some seriously delicious food. Now there's another flavorful cowboy dish to add to your vocabulary: cowboy candy, a jarred condiment that brings the heat and the sweet. 

Essentially candied jalapeños, cowboy candy offers the tantalizing blend of sugar and spice that naturally compliments savory dishes, falling into the same class as pepper jelly. It's an incredibly versatile condiment, both cutting the richness of cheeses and complementing the saltiness of decadent meat dishes. Heck, it can even take your favorite margarita to the next level. If you're ready to unlock the power of cowboy candy, it's worth getting to know this condiment a little bit better.

The Texas origins of cowboy candy

Most agree that cowboy candy originated deep in the heart of Texas nearly a hundred years ago. According to WWH Ranch, the oldest cannery company in Texas and the original seller of cowboy candy, the first version of the sweet and spicy condiment was made in 1922 by Mindie Heironimus, the grandmother of the current owners. Heironimus had a prodigious garden at her family home in St. Augustine, Texas, which was rumored to have jalapeño pepper plants approaching six feet tall. 

At the time, she possessed a surplus of jalapeños and was looking for a way to preserve it all. Combining the sweet and tangy process required to make bread and butter pickles, Heironimus replaced the sliced cucumbers with jalapeño coins. Mixed in with a blend of spices and sugar, the jalapeños become delightfully candied. 

Why the cowboy distinction? No one knows for sure, but WWH ranch posits it could have been a snack for local ranch hands who became addicted to sugared chili pepper. Still, this can't be proved as anything more than a romantic Western legend.     

The many ingredients and secret spice of cowboy candy

The main ingredients for cowboy candy are fairly straightforward: sliced and stemmed jalapeños, sugar, and apple cider vinegar. The amounts will vary from recipe to recipe, but those three ingredients remain steadfast cornerstones. The odd recipe will involve a blend of white and brown sugar, adding a molasses note, but all granulated white sugar works just fine.   

What type of spices to use is where things can get a little complicated. As mentioned by WHH Ranch, the original cowboy candy recipe mimics that of a bread and butter pickle recipe, so most of the spices used are classic to that formula. Celery seeds, garlic powder, and turmeric are the most commonly used spices, while sweeter spices like coriander and allspice are rarer but can be thrown in as well. Some cooks like to double down on the heat and add a pinch of cayenne for good measure. 

The many brands of cowboy candy

While WHH Ranch is known for being the original purveyor of cowboy candy, plenty of other canning companies have jumped into the game. If you head online, you'll stumble over a series of Texas-based food companies take on the classic, with various new nicknames for the candied jalapeño. One company sells "Texas Jalapeño Sweeties" while another offers "The Original Bread and Butter Jalapeño." Their flavors should more or less imitate the original, with vinegar-and-sugar syrup covering chopped jalapeños, and the differences are only really determined by the spices used. 

Some brands will depart from this tried-and-true taste slightly, like Van Roehling's berry adaptation, Raspberry Candied Jalapeños. Others take the cowboy candy form in a new direction, turning it into spreadable candied jalapeño jelly or creating a dry candied jalapeño rub. 

As for getting your hands on one of these many brands, in Texas, hundreds of options lurk in grocery stores, specialty shops, and even gas stations. It can be scarce outside of the south, but you can still order plenty online. 

How to make your own cowboy candy

If you'd rather make your own version of cowboy candy, it's simple enough to recreate in a home kitchen. First things first, invest in some plastic gloves to protect your hands from the spicy oils of the jalapeño. Second, make sure your slices aren't too thick, about 1/4 inch thick per coin. To make sure the heat properly comes through, don't deseed your jalapeños. Next, you'll assemble your syrup of apple cider vinegar and sugar, and toss in a couple of teaspoons of your desired spices, like celery seed, turmeric, and cayenne. Bring it all to a boil and then add your fresh cut jalapeños, simmering for 4 to 5 minutes.

The next step is the only sticky and tricky part. You'll use a slotted spoon to scoop out the jalapeños to ladle them into sterilized jars, but keep the syrup in the pot so that you can continue to cook it down into a thicker consistency. After simmering for another 6 to 7 minutes, you'll then take your thickened syrup and pour it over top each jar of candied jalapeños. From there, you can process your jars to make them shelf stable or put them in the fridge and enjoy it within two weeks.     

How to eat your cowboy candy

There's very little that a bit of cowboy candy can't improve. First, consider adding your candied jalapeños to your favorite sandwich or burger. Layered in with a bacon-topped burger or ham-filled Cuban sandwich, the cowboy candy can add a level of jammy heat. If you'd like to add the sweet condiment to kindred dishes, consider popping a dose into a pot of molasses-rich baked beans. If you're looking for true contrast, they work equally well spicing up a row of fish tacos. The individual coins are also great for topping various hors' d'oeuvres, like deviled eggs, or as a final topper for loaded nachos. For the bakers out there, try adding them to your favorite cornbread recipe.

Speaking of appetizers, a decadent, gooey wheel of baked brie seems to beg for a sticky coat of cowboy candy. Or you can go super Texan and traditional, layering a generous amount of cowboy candy over a block of cream cheese, and serving it with plenty of buttery crackers. Sometimes the classics can't be beaten.

Of course, you can add these to your favorite cocktails as well. Its sweet heat lends itself well to heavily garnished bloody marys, mojitos needing a bit of a kick, and smoky Mezcal-accented margaritas.