Marshmallows – a peak into a fascinating history

Who doesn’t know marshmallows? Those white fluffy, puffy, gooey, soft pillows of, well, actually, sugar. If you’re feeling like eating some now, go ahead, make some and return to this post with a big pile of marshmallows next to you!

In this post it’s not about making marshmallows, this time I’ll zoom in a little more on the history of marshmallows! I find the history of food fascinating. The great thing is that it shows some interesting developments in the world. Developments in food science have been essential in how our lives have formed in the past decades. Just think about the invention of the microwave, pasteurization, fermentation, canning, etc. Our lives would have been very different without those.

So let’s get back to marshmallows…

Why a marshmallow is called a marshmallow

This is a great fact that I learned not too long ago when I was listening a podcast in my car, the ‘Food Non-Fiction‘ to be more specific. There I learned that originally, marshmallows were made with, yes, marshmallow. Marshmallow is a plant and grows in salt marshes. The marshmallow plant is actually the ‘marsh’ variety of ‘mallow’ plants.

The marshmallow plant has been used for sweets, but also as a medicine, for more than 2000 years. Reports state that even Egyptians already used it.

Marshmallow contains a lot of mucilage, this is a thick sap and also works as a gelling agent. In older times the stem of the marshmallow was heated to extract the sap. The sap would be mixed with sugar, or honey in the older days, to make a good tasting cure for coughs. Later, this developed in mixing the sap with whipped eggs and sugar, creating something like the marshmallow we know today.

Since gelatin was more widely available, towards the end of the 19th century, the marshmallow was slowly substituted by this thickening agent.

marshmallows
Some nice, store bought, so most probably extruded, marshmallows.

From hand made, to large scale moulding, to extrusion

In the nineteenth century, marsmallows were made using the method I described in my blog post on marshmallows. Production still took place in small batches. As far as I could find this started out in France.

However, already in the midth 20th century, factory production of marshmallows took place without eggs. In fact, the foam was made by whipping gelatin in a sugar solution. After this the foam would be poured into molds which were covered with starch to prevent the mixture from sticking. The foams might have to rest and dry in the moulds for up to 12 hours. This all changed with the invention of a continuous marshmallow production process by Doumak in 1958. Reading this patent will give you some great insights!

He describes the use of an extruder for making marshmallows. Not only would this be a lot faster, it would also limit the amount of starch required. Furthermore, the risk of wood splinters from the moulds remaining in the marshmallows would be eliminated.

Once the door for continuous processing had been opened, large scale and especially cheap production of marshmallows could really start off well. The patent even states that this new production process would improve the quality of the marshmallows: “By means of the present process and formulation, a finished product having great consumer appeal is produced. The marshmallow has a smooth texture, and may be light and fluffy, the density thereof being of the order of forty percent less than that of conventional marshmallows. The marshmallows of this invention may not have a coarse starch crust of the type processed by prior art confections.

 

What I’d like to do now is make marshmallows, from marshmallow. I’ve been looking around to see whether I could buy any. It’s not been easy, but I think I found some, already looking forward to see whether I can make the ‘real’ old fashioned marshmallows.

Sources

I’ve done quite some search for this blog post, some of the sources I used are: FoodInfo.net, University of Maryland, The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets p.430-431, Food Non-Fiction podcast, Marshmallow USA

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