How Cotton Candy Works

Cotton Candy Machines and Marketing Today

Making Cotton Candy at Home
If you love cotton candy, you can purchase a counter-top machine to make the confection at home, or you can rent a machine from a party rental store. Learning how to gather the floss in an even, airy bundle takes practice -- the trick is to let the floss come to the cone. Hold the cone near the side of the bowl and a little higher than the head -- the floss tends to shoot upward. Quickly touch the cone tip to the side of the bowl as the swath of candy accumulates, and then rotate the cone to catch the streams of floss as they spin.

Although little has changed in the cotton candy machine's basic design, today's machines continue to evolve with technology. Larger models can hold 3 pounds (1.36 kilograms) of sugar in the cylindrical head. Some heads are compartmentalized, allowing the operator to load up to three different colors and flavors of sugar and switch between them during one run. The head descends into one or more coiled heating elements that reach a temperature of about 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius). Temperature and voltage can be set and monitored digitally. The rotating bowl may span almost 30 inches (75 cm) and spin at 3,450 revolutions per minute, spewing filaments of molten sugar that measure just 50 microns in diameter [source: Science World].

Colors and flavors have come a long way, too. Pink, vanilla-flavored cotton candy is traditional and still the best-seller, but you can find a rainbow of colors and flavors, including bubble gum, mint and piña colada. Simpler innovations include a stabilizer, a sturdy mesh attached to the inner wall of the bowl that makes the candy easier to collect, and a plastic dome called a bubble, which shields half the bowl to help protect the cotton candy from dirt and insects.

In 1972, this carnival food met mass production when a fully automated machine was unveiled. Cotton candy could now be found at grocery stores and other outlets long after the carnival left town. A continuous roll of cotton candy is gathered onto a conveyor belt, where it's shaped and lopped into uniform bundles. It's then packaged in bags or tubs made of plastics that prevent the passage of water in and out of the container. Sugar is hygroscopic and attracts moisture, but water can make cotton candy dense and gooey.

The latest innovation, which could be coming to a shopping mall or bowling alley near you, is a cotton candy vending machine. Built by an Irish manufacturer and introduced to the United States in 2009, this machine comes a little closer to the carnival experience, playing music as it spins and dispenses the candy.