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, roast some and return to this post with a big pile of marshmallows next to you!

In this post it’s not about making marshmallows, instead, we’ll zoom in on on the history of marshmallows. Because, where did it get it’s name (hint, it’s linked to a root) and why on earth are we making them?

Why a marshmallow is called a marshmallow

This is a great fact that I learned while listening a podcast in my car called the ‘Food Non-Fiction‘ podcast. Originally, marshmallows were made with, yes, marshmallow, more specifically marshmallow root. Marshmallow is a plant that grows in salt marshes. Hence the name, 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 used it already. So why was this marshmallow plant used for sweets? It’s due to the so-called mucilage.

Marshmallow contains a lot of mucilage which is a thick sap. This mucilage can work as a gelling agent which means that it can thicken or ‘gel’ liquids, just like gelatin does. In older times the stem of the marshmallow was heated to extract the sap. The sap would then be mixed with sugar or honey 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. Whether it actually worked for coughs I wouldn’t know, but apparently it tasted good enough to develop it into a sweet.

However, since gelatin was more widely available (and probably easier to control without any off flavours), towards the end of the 19th century, the marshmallow root was slowly substituted by this thickening agent. In the end, most marshmallows don’t contain marshmallow anymore, but are still called that way.

Roasting a marshmallow over a barbecue

From hand made, to large scale moulding, to extrusion

In the nineteenth century, marsmallows were made using the method that is still used by home cooks. Production still took place in small batches. It seemed that this started out in France.

But as with any food, if something is popular it will be scaled up at some point. And in that case, you can’t keep on producing it by hand with small vessels. It seems that egg proteins were quickly eliminated from the marshmallows when scaling them up. In the midth 20th century, factory production of marshmallows already took place without eggs.

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 though with the invention of a continuous marshmallow production process by Doumak in 1958 as described in the patent. He describes the use of an extruder for making marshmallows. An extruder is a sort of a continuous mixer under a high pressure. In the extruder the ingredients are mixed and pressure is increased. By releasing pressure at the end of the extruder the marshmallow blows up and air is introduced. 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.

This has transformed the marshmallows from a small scale ‘health’ product into a massive scale industry, with loads of marshmallows made each year. If you’d like to go back into time a little, have a look at my attempt to make marshmallows with marshmallow root.

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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