Powers of Two: Hand-Pulled Cotton-Candy ‘Round the World

by Dave Arnold

Call it what you want --dragon's beard, pashmak, or pishmaniye-- this hand-pulled Valrhona cotton candy is mighty good.

Welcome to my first video post, in which I’ll show you how to make  hand-pulled cotton candy (hereafter denoted as HPCC).  HPCC is made by stretching and folding cooked sugar while continuously dusting with powder to keep the strands from sticking together. Each time you fold the candy you double the number of strands. 14 turns, which results in 16,384 strands, is not uncommon. The most well known HPCC is dragon’s beard candy from China, which you can find in New York’s Chinatown if you look hard.

For years I thought dragon’s beard was specifically Chinese.  Recently, however, Behroush Sharifi, the Saffron King, gave us a sample of pashmak, Iranian HPCC  flavored with sesame flour.  Our Turkish intern Naz saw the pashmak and told me about a Turkish version called pishmaniye, flavored with buttered flour.  Turns out HPCC is a world-wide phenomenon.  Using chef Peter Pang’s instructions for dragon’s beard as a foundation, I developed the Cooking Issues recipe.  Here it is ( n.b. I’m not that good at it yet):


I tried to make the video comprehensive,  so you might find that it runs a little long.  If you’re in a hurry, the recipe is at 30 seconds, the pulling starts at 4:45, and the fast-motion pulling starts at 6:46.

For the recipe and technique, watch the video; some teaser pictures below:

Staring through 16,384 strands of candy (2 to the 14th turns).
FCI alumnus Nick Wong angling for dragon's moustache as the new HPCC term.
HPCC flavored with malt vinegar powder, mustard powder, smoke powder, and cornstarch sprinkled with citric acid and salt and wrapped around chopped peanuts. Not savory and not a gimmick --straight-up truly delicious. Eat-all-day delicious.
HPCC mid-pull. Here we are using 75% cornstarch 25% Valrhona cocoa powder. For a darker, richer, flavor we use 50/50.

60 thoughts on “Powers of Two: Hand-Pulled Cotton-Candy ‘Round the World

  1. Jaw drops. Chef, I used to get Dragon’s Beard at the local Chinese megamart. There was a man there with a red cart and he’d make it. I haven’t had it for probably 15 years until this past June when I went to Montreal. There’s a man there who makes it in the tiny (one street) Chinatown. According to the articles I’ve read, he’s the last one in Canada, or was it North America?, that makes it. Since you said you’ve seen it in NYC, it must be Canada.

    Anyway, thank you so much for developing this. Some questions:

    1. How much can I scale this down? I only want to make 1 puck’s worth. Two tops.

    2. I am surprised you said that you can just leave it out. I’ve had non-fresh/stale Dragon’s Beard and it’s instantly recognizable. It’s not really good. All the strands kind of are clumped together. Sugar is hydroscopic right?

    1. Howdy David,
      1. We’ve never tried to scale it down. Peter Pang’s original recipe was for 1 kilo and we just stuck with it. He used maltose (which you can get in Asian food stores) which we subbed out with corn syrup (more available). I would guess you can make a smaller batch. I’d add the vinegar later in the recipe so you can use the full teaspoon and not get too much sugar inversion.
      2. If you wrap it or put it in a quart container it clumps up pretty badly. If you leave it stretched out on a sheet tray (and your kitchen is dry, and there is excess powder on the candy) it last pretty well. The chocolate one on the table at the beginning of the recipe was 2 days old. After a couple of minutes of drying it loses its pliability and becomes more friable.
      3. I’m sure dragon’s beard aficionados would take issue with the texture of my finished product. As I said, I’m still learning.
      Thanks for the nice comments!

    2. David,

      There is a Dragon’s Beard maker here in Richmond BC (a suburb Vancouver). He makes it fresh to order at the Richmond Night Market in the summer and he has a stall at one of the Asian malls.

      Fascinating video — and timely as a chef friend is looking to make some special Dragon’s Beard dessert for a modern Chinese restaurant he is opening.

  2. Dave,

    That recipe kicks ass.

    In return I’d like to share a recipe that I think also kicks ass. It makes persimmon taste like foie gras. I couldn’t find it anywhere else on the internet, so I think it’s my own creation… here goes…


    1. Slice fuyu persimmon into 1/4″ slices

    2. Sauté the slices in butter and a little bit of sage on low heat

    3. Once caramelized, put a little agave nectar in the pan and coat all pieces evenly

    4. Remove pieces from the pot

    5. Add balsamic and warm through; reduce slightly; do not reduce to sticky syrup

    6. Dip each piece quickly; only apply enough to lightly coat most of one side

    7. Remove from pan and add a little bit of large flake salt (I use maldon salt)

    I wanted to send this to your -mail, but could not find it. I’d be really curious to see what you think.



    1. Howdy Hank,
      I don’t cook with persimmons often (ever really). Next time I pick up some Fuyus I’ll check it out.

  3. I’ve never seen anything like this, but I don’t need any more convincing to give it a try. This is going to be fun!

    Thanks for taking the time to make such an awesome video!

    1. Howdy Brother, I’m cooking my bird the same way as last year but using a Narraganset turkey. Good to hear from you.

  4. I’m usually just a lurker but I had to comment to say that this stuff is really delicious. My aunt usually forms them into tubes around a bit of bean or sesame paste.

    She also uses about the same technique to make hand-pulled noodles. Pretty spectacular when she throws them into the air for the figure eight part.

    Happy turkey day!

  5. Great post!

    Your HPCC looks a lot like kkultarae sold in South Korea. Vendors market it as a dessert that was made for the Korean royal court.

    Here’s a photo:

    Also, the way you pull the candy reminds me of a cook in Seoul pulling dough to make noodles. More strands multiplied as he pulled the dough.


    – Jenny

  6. 1st attempt failed: the puck was too hard and fragile even if slightly heated. I scaled down the recipe dividing by 5. A possible mistake I’m aware of is that the temperature may have risen to 135/136 °C.
    One thing I don’t understand is, due to the fact that the temperature doesn’t increase linearly because of the water, in what range of temperature do I have to extend the cooking time: with maximum heat with such a little dosage it takes 5 minutes to reach 133°C!
    Greetings from Italy!

    1. I think the cook time is related to batch size and burner output. For a small batch size you’d have to really throttle down your burner. I don’t know what the max temperature feasible for this candy would be. Tell me what happens when you try again.

    2. Thanks for the great video!
      I tried this today but it ended up very friable. I think I accidentally hit about 135 C during to cooking process (I turned off the heat at 132, but there was more latent heat than I anticipated). As a consequence, I’m suspecting that 133 is pretty close to the max temperature for the sugar mixture.

      The puck needed to be microwaved before every pull (or it would snap) which probably didn’t help the pliability of the final product. Still tasted good though, it was crunchy as opposed to soft and fluffy and went well with the cocoa nibs I wrapped inside.

      Since I have four more pucks left, I guess I have a lot more experimentation (and sugar) in my future. . .

  7. There is a Brazilian version called “Bala de Coco”- coconut candy. It takes 1 kg of sugar, 200 ml coconut milk, 200 ml water and 1 teaspoon vinegar. The cooking is the same, but the pulling part does not include starch or powder; the goal here is to pull the candy until it is white and pearly. Cut it into candy-sized pieces and let dry overnight. It is an airy, brittle and delicious sweet!

  8. Aloha. i tried this out. but switched in macadamia nuts and a corn starch, coconut flour and cocoa powder combo when making the strands .. must say very delicious

  9. Wow, I am thankful for this article, I now know what the heck it is I bought when I was in China.
    I was in Nanjing in a souvenir shop and all that I was able to read was that those small treats were specialties from Nanjing.
    They only had some in packed boxes though, no fresh ones, which is a pity since the fresh made look much more appetizing. The packaged ones I got were very rigid… they came in all kind of flavors though (strawberry, peach, taro, etc…) Now with your article and pictures, I want to go on a quest to taste some freshmade dragon’s beard! Greetings from France!

  10. Very cool, Chef!

    To use liquid flavoring concentrate, would it be better to go with the oil-based like for chocolate or water born flavorings?

    1. Hello Flink,
      I guess you could use some oil based flavorings and incorporate them into the powder before you pull. Another option would be to include candy flavorings into the sugar as it is being cooked (I have not tried this myself).

  11. Question about the powder in use:

    Texture-wise: Can I use powdered sugar (?=Icing Sugar), instead of using cornstarch?

    Would it be too sweet?
    Would it be better to go 50%/50%?

    Thank you for your help,
    you are great!!

    1. Thanks Vert,
      Dunno, I’d think powdered sugar would be too sticky. I never tried it. The recipe as is had a lot of sweetness.

  12. I’ve tried this twice now… The first time worked much better than I expected, but I actually used table syrup (log cabin) instead of corn syrup. My second batch I used karo syrup and the edges of the molded shape turned out much harder. After the first figure 8 one of the two loops just snapped. I have been working with a 25% recipe. I am trying again and cooking at a lower speed.

    Any tips? It seems like you don’t want to cook too long or “invert” too much sugar, but what are the symptoms of that happening? Should I be using high or low fructose corn syrup?


    1. Hi Dave H,
      I use regular corn syrup (Karo brand), which is not HFCS. If you cook to long (or too low) the sugar will be much softer than normal. BTW, even on hard batches you can keep them going without snapping as long as you never stop even for a moment. I was video taping a hard batch, paused for 20 seconds to explain something, and started to pull again and the whole thing exploded.

  13. Tried the recipe but the discs are still too liquid, even in the refridgerator. Any way to salvage the semi-liquid discs? They are very thick, almost like hot toffee.

    1. Huh. I think your thermometer must be reading too low.You could melt and reheat them up to 133 C but I don’t know if that will affect the properties.

  14. Three cheers for vinegar/mustard candy!!!

    Dave, do you remember the ratios we used for this one? Was the malt vinegar powder the dominant flavor? I want to make a batch and send to Katie!

    BTW – I left the 50/50 Valrhona dragonsbeard in a quart container ontop of my frig for a month and it turned into a delicious melt-in-your-mouth chocolate dust. I mixed it into booth ice cream and cranberry bread with really nice results

  15. I was at FCI that day and tried both the cocoa powder and the vinegar Dijon, both were excellent but I preferred the latter (it was sweet, which kind of messed with your brain).

  16. Bro….love the idea however I can’t get the edges of the cooled sugar to soften therefore they crack every time…..I’ve tried it at soft crack hard ball and softball temps….it’s driving me nuts…any advice?

    1. Hi Nicolai,
      Is the puck so hard that you have to nuke it to pull it? If so, hard edges can be a problem. I’d increase your cooking time by lowering the heat. If the center can pull but the edges are harder, I’d spend more time forming the initial doughnut shape –that should even it out a bit. Also, You might have problems if the puck is too thin. If I owned them, I’d form the pucks in silicone savarin molds –then there would only be one hard edge. Shoot us a picture of the problem if you can.

  17. Thanks for the great post Dave. I gave your recipe a go yesterday with fantastic results. The only problem I’m experiencing now is my 4 remaining ‘pucks’ have white spots through them. I can only guess that this is the early stages of crystallization. I calibrated my 3 candy thermometers and followed your recipe to the T including keeping my cooking time between 20-25mins. Any ideas or solutions on how to prevent happening again? I’d like to be able to keep a few pucks on hand that last at least a few days. Any ideas? Thanking you in advance.

    1. Howdy ChefCala,
      I’m glad the recipe works for you. I also sometimes get small crystallization spots in my pucks. As long as the problem isn’t too bad they still pull just fine. I’m guessing the crystals form around dust particles/etc. that are in my quart containers, although I’m really not sure. See if your pucks still pull right and let me know. PS, after my pucks are completely cooled I put the lids on the containers.

      1. Thanks Dave, I’m figuring my sugar wasn’t dissolved properly in the first stage just before boiling as the crystals kept on growing until it was almost sugar again! I have tried again tonight and fingers crossed it doesn’t happen again. This time I slowed the first stage right back until I was sure (well as sure as I could be anyway!) it was dissolved. It’s such a strong saturation of sugar it’s bit surprising it’s so temperamental!!
        Will let you know how this batch holds up!


    1. I don’t think so Mara,
      Maple syrup is mainly sucrose (just like regular sugar), while corn syrup is a mixture of glucose and other higher weight polysaccharides that retards crystal growth.

  18. This should work with glucose syrup in place of corn syrup, correct? I’ve always subbed them before in recipes with no problem, what are the differences between the two?

    1. Hey Tyler, I think it should work. I think the two products are fundamentally similar just with different DE’s.

  19. I think my problem is that I’m not getting the mixture hot enough, am I correct to assume that’s crucial to get the puck hardness right? I think my pucks are too soft.
    How long should it take to cool them? Are you refrigerating to cool?

    One more question – I’d like to create a pink colored grapefruit version, can this be done?
    I’m experimenting by reducing the amount of water in place of fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, but as I said my electric burner isn’t getting temps hot enough.

    1. Howdy Scott-L,
      I’m sure you aren’t getting it hot enough. You could flavor and color your candy syrup, but the color of your powder will dominate it. If you wan’t the color to show through you’ll have to go straight red (which will go pink with white powder) or use pink powder.

  20. I tried pulling but it split half for the thinner strand.
    How many times have you fail before you successfully pulled the Dragon bearded candy.

    1. Howdy Rosamundwo,
      Once you get the texture right you should be pulling in no time. If the candy is too stiff, even 15 seconds pause can cause it to rupture (I think as long as you keep pulling the friction keeps it OK but I cant be sure). Lemon juice might react differently than vinegar, because the acid is non-volatile and the pH is different. If I had to guess, I’d say your candy came out too soft, in which case it will pull itself apart under its own weight as the strands get thinner.

  21. Love it! Been wanting to have a go for ages, ever since I read about hand pulled candy in the little house on the prairie cookbook. Although ideally I think you are supposed to do it in the snow.

    1. Might have to change the recipe a bit for the cold and difference in humidity. I never read the little house on the prairie series. I didn’t even know there was a cookbook. Any good?

  22. I had a little problem with this… I did everithing said in the video but it never dried like stone in the video… it was stuked, like really thik honney
    what did I did wrong?? I was so happy and now so dissapointed =(

    1. Do yoou live in an area with high humidity? Perhaps try storing it with more powder or seal it in a container with some dririte desiccant granules.

  23. Hi chef what kind of corn syrup, light corn syrupt or high fructose corn syrup have you used for this recipe? and once the sugar heat up too 133celcius do i immediately remove from the heat or just turn off the heat and leave it at the same spot?

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

    1. Light corn syrup (I used Karo brand). You pull the pan off the heat (I have to re-read my recipe to be sure) a couple degrees below 133 and let cool a bit before casting.

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