We all know marshmallows as sweet, pillow-like candies that taste great roasted over a campfire or used as a topping for hot chocolate. They’re made by whipping air into a mixture of sugar and protein (usually gelatine), and then coated with corn starch to stiffen them into marshmallow candies, or left as a gooey, sticky cream and used as a cake filling or frosting.
Marshmallows take their name from the marsh-mallow plant (Althaea officinalis), which used to be their key ingredient, but these days marshmallows rarely contain any of their namesake plant. The first marshmallows are thought to date back to as early as 2000 BCE and the early Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt. These early marshmallows were made by boiling pieces of marshmallow root in honey to thicken it, then straining and cooling the mixture and using it to treat sore throats and coughs, and to heal wounds.
Sometime in the 1800s, the marshmallow made its way to France, where confectioners adapted the recipe to make a candy called Pâte de Guimauve. This new, French version of the marshmallow was made by whipping dried marshmallow root with sugar, water and egg whites, and was much closer to the recipe we know today. It still took at least a day until the marshmallows were properly dried and ready to eat, however, and later innovators would introduce the starch mogul system, where the marshmallow mixture was sealed inside moulds made of corn starch to dry and firm them up. At around the same time, the marshmallow root was replaced with gelatine, which was easier to stabilise, and marshmallows have been largely marshmallow-free ever since.
Marshmallows can be made using various different ingredients, but in general they require both a protein, for structure, and sugars, for texture and flavour.
Marshmallow is a type of foam - a gas mixed with a liquid - which is what gives it its light, airy texture. To achieve this, you need to whip a liquid protein, much as you would whip egg whites to make meringue, to trap and hold air bubbles inside. This can be achieved using egg whites, gelatine, or aquafaba.
Of these ingredients, gelatine is the most stable, and is most likely to be used to make store-bought marshmallows. Many artisan candy-makers still prefer egg whites, however, and some industrial candies may use a mixture of dried egg white and gelatine.
It is worth noting that marshmallows made with gelatine are likely not suitable for vegetarians or vegans. Gelatine is usually taken from animal connective tissue, although vegan versions are available, so if you’re not sure, check the packet. The best option for making vegan marshmallows at home is aquafaba, which is the protein-rich water from canned chickpeas.
What type of sugar you use to make marshmallows will affect the overall texture. The idea is to prevent the sugar from crystallising in a well-ordered structure, as this will make the marshmallow grainy and crunchy. A mixture of 2 parts corn syrup to 1 part sucrose is often used in industrial marshmallow-making, as the sucrose thickens the mixture, while the corn syrup stops it from crystallising too quickly.
Temperature is also helpful for getting a smooth, non-grainy texture. Heating the sugar to a high temperature and then cooling it rapidly leaves no time for the sugar molecules to form a stable structure, so you don’t end up with big, crunchy crystals.
Marshmallows can be made with various different ingredients, so their nutritional information will vary, but according to the USDA, one regular marshmallow (7.2g) contains the following:
Total Carbohydrates: 5.9g (2% of your daily value)
Dietary Fiber: 0g
Protein: 0.1g grams
As we can see, marshmallows are mainly made up of carbohydrates, and for something so small, they pack in a lot of sugar and calories. They don’t really add much in terms of nutrients, either, so marshmallows are best enjoyed as an occasional treat only.
How to make them at home
¾ oz unflavoured gelatine
Ice cold water,
1 ½ cups + 1 tbsp
Take a baking pan and brush it with the vegetable oil.
In a bowl, mix together the powdered sugar and corn starch, then rub it all over the greased baking pan until fully coated. Return any unused mixture to the bowl and set aside.
Pour half of the cold water into a bowl and add the gelatine.
Add the granulated sugar, golden syrup, salt, and the rest of the water to a small pan. Replace the lid and cook on medium-high for 3 to 4 minutes.
Remove the lid and attach a sugar thermometer to the side of the pan. Keep heating until the mixture reaches 240°F, then remove from the heat immediately.
Slowly add the sugar mixture to the bowl with the gelatine mixture, pouring it down the side of the bowl and mixing all the while, using a hand-held mixer on a low speed.
When all of the sugar mixture has been added, increase the mixer speed to high, and continue whisking for 12 to 14 minutes until the mixture has thickened. Add the vanilla and keep mixing for a further 1 minute.
Pour the mixture into the pan you prepared earlier, using a lightly-oiled spatula to spread it evenly.
Dust the top of the marshmallow mixture with the powdered sugar mixture until it is lightly covered in a thin layer. Place any leftover back into the bowl and set aside.
Allow the marshmallow to sit uncovered overnight.
The next day, turn the marshmallow out onto a cutting board and use a pizza cutter dusted with the powdered sugar mix to cut it into 1 inch squares.
Dust each individual square on all sides with the remaining powered sugar mix.
Serve, and enjoy.
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