Learn the science behind:
Making marshmallows from scratch is a lot of fun (and in my case makes my entire kitchen turn white…) and gives you unique fluffy white sweet pillows. I’ve made marshmallows and also analyzed them from a science point of view. Those cooking quests used the modern day marshmallow making method: boiling a sugar syrup, adding that to a whipped up egg white and then mixing in gelatin at the end.
However, when looking into the origins of marshmallows, I found out that they used to be made using marshmallow root. So, of course, I set out on a quest to make marshmallows without gelatin and with marshmallow root! In this post I’ll share with you my first findings, I’ve managed to make quite a decent marshmallow root marshmallow.
Recap of how marshmallows are made
Let’s quickly recap on marshmallow and the science of marshmallows. We’ll need it to be able to make marshmallows using marshmallow root (scroll down if you’re just interested in the recipe!).
Marshmallows are made by boiling a syrup of sugar, glucose and water to a temperature of 121°C. The reason we boil to this specific temperature is because we want a limited amount of water in our sugar syrup. The temperature of a boiling sugar syrup is always related to the water content of the syrup (let’s not dive in the details of that one just now, but I’ve written about this before in my post on caramel!). In the meantime we whip up an egg white to incorporate air and thus make a light and fluffy marshmallow.
By pouring the hot sugar syrup in the whipped egg white (while continuously whipping!), we cook the proteins in the egg white. By cooking them they become more stable and better in holding onto the air. We keep on whipping until the bowl is not too hot anymore and add the dissolved gelatin. Gelatin will strengthen the structure further, preventing it from collapsing. We don’t want a marshmallow to collapse since the air will escape and it will loose all its lightness.
The marshmallow root
In my marshmallow root marshmallow experiment I want to substitute the gelatin that is normally used for making marshmallows for marshmallow root powder. Why substitute gelatin? Simply because that’s the ‘old-fashioned’ method, extra advantage, this marshmallow is also suited for vegetarians! Why use the root? ‘s because I’ve read that especially this root has thickening properties and that’s what I need in my marshmallows. Gelatin stabilizes marshmallows, so my root should take over this role.
That led me to a search on the internet for marshmallow root powder. I had no idea whether this would actually be something that could be bought online.
Soon I ran into loads of websites on herbs and their healing powers. Marshmallow is considered a medicine for quite a lot of health discomforts and even used in shampoos! I’m not an expert on this topic, so wouldn’t know whether it actually works or not, just have a look yourself. Whether or not it is a benefit for your health, these types of websites do sell the marshmallow root powder you’ll need for this recipe. I found the powder in a local little shop selling all sorts of medicinal herbs, spices, etc.
The powder itself is a light brown colour and has a ‘healthy’ smell, it somehow reminded me of sweets you eat when you have a cough. It also reminded me of ‘drop’ a typical Dutch black candy containing liquorice.
Developing a recipe for marshmallow root marshmallow
I set out to come up with a recipe for making marshmallow with the marshmallow root. My first search on the internet for recipes gave a meagre score of two available recipes. Both which I didn’t really trust to make the marshmallow I wanted to make. One from learning herbs (which still contained gelatin, I didn’t want to use gelatin) and one from food.com (which uses gum arabic, that I don’t have in my cupboard).
So, I decided to start from scratch and I revisited the recipe I used to make the regular marshmallows with gelatin. I reasoned that if I would simply substitute the gelatin with marshmallow root powder, I could in essence make the same thing. That’s exactly what I ended up doing. The main trick was to find out how much marshmallow root powder I actually needed.
If you’re also planning to use this recipe, do realize that marshmallow root powder is not a mainstream ingredient, so the different powders can be pretty different. It might be that you need more or less of the powder to get the same consistency. Overall, I really liked using the root powder, it gave a better, smoother, more stretchy, less ‘plasticy’ marshmallow!
Thickening properties of marshmallow root powder
To test for the required quantity I took 1 tablespoon of marshmallow root powder and mixed it with some water. The powder quickly absorbed all water, already showing its thickening properties. By heating this mixture au bain marie (in a boil above a pot of boiling water) I found that by heating it slightly it thickened up a little more.
That led me to the conclusion that one: marshmallow root powder can indeed cause thickening of a mixture (especially if heated a bit) and two: marshmallow root powder can be mixed with water very easily, requiring only a very little bit to become a homogeneous paste.
Since I would be adding the marshmallow root powder to the whipped up egg white + sugar solution I though it would probably be important to make a paste out of the powder before whisking it in. I was afraid that adding a powder would cause it to fly everywhere or form lumps. My ‘ideal’ ratio for making this paste was decided to be 1 tbsp of marshmallow root powder with 1 tablespoon of water.
Making marshmallow root marshmallow
After boiling the sugars, whipping the egg white and whipping the two together (see below for recipe) it was time to add the marshmallow root powder. I only added the powder once the bowl had cooled down enough for me to touch it (not sure if that’s necessary though, didn’t get to test that out). I kept on whipping until everything had come to room temperature (a great advantage of using a stand mixer, your arm would have died from whisking in the meantime). To test the powder properly I decided to make three different recipes:
- Use no marshmallow root powder (to see whether it actually did something)
Adding no marshmallow root powder led to a very flat little marshmallow. It couldn’t keep its structure and just collapsed once I placed it on a try. It was by far the most dense marshmallow of the three and very sugary. Not a nice fluffly marshmallow. This ‘proved’ that I couldn’t simply leave out the gelatin, something would have to help keep it up.
- Use 1/2 tablespoon of marshmallow root powder per egg white
This marshmallow was already a lot less runny than the first one. It kept its shape better, though still not very good. It tended to flatten out over time. The marshmallow was also very very sticky and had a very very long pull to it. That was actually pretty cool, you could stretch it out quite a bit. However, don’t even try to cut this one into cubes. All in all, better than the first, not perfect yet.
- Use 1 table spoon of marshmallow root powder per egg white
What a nice, light and airy marshmallow this was. I couldn’t stretch this marshmallow as much as the previous, but it was still pretty flexible. Again cutting it into squares was hard, but the taste and texture really made up for it. This marshmallow also kept its shape best, it didn’t flow down all the time. For making marshmallows this really is the minimum quantity of marshmallow root powder you need. You might want to increase it a little more if you want firmer marshmallows that would look more like those using gelatin.
A little note here, cornstarch is your best friend during cutting and pouring stage! Make sure to coat your marshmallow straight after making with cornstarch. If not, it’ll attract moisture and become one big sticky mass…
Why does marshmallow root thicken?
In conclusion I can say that I managed to make nice tasting marshmallows using marshmallow root powder instead of gelatin. The last thing I did want to investigate though, is the working principle of this powder. This proved to be harder than I thought and I still don’t have a complete answer I’m afraid. Here’s my best guess, if you know more details, I’d be happy to hear!
The first challenge was to find out which molecules are present in marshmallow root, luckily I found one website with such a list. I wasn’t too sure whether this was all that accurate, since once I started searching on, I found various websites with the exact same text. Was the text copied from somewhere? And if yes, what’s the source? I wasn’t too sure. However, in the list I saw one ingredient that could cause the thickening, which is ‘mucilage’. When looking into this further, I reasoned this could well be the substance causing the thickening.
Mucilage is a pretty common substance and can be found in various plants, for example okra and cacti. It is a mix of complex carbohydrates, proteins and sugars, which exactly, will differ per plant. Mucilage is used by the plants to hold on to water. It seems as if the more well known thickening agent agar-agar also contains quite a bit of mucilage. So, this mucilage seems to be able to cause quite some thickening of moisture containing substances (you could also see this when adding water to the marshmallow root, it simply all disappeared).
Good luck making the marshmallow root marshmallow! If you’ve managed to make something, let me know, I’d be so curious!
Having trouble finding the translation for marshmallow root to your own language? Use the latin name in your search: Althaea officinalis. For the Dutch readers, marshmallow root is heemstwortel in Dutch.
Just a little warning here, as far as I could find the quantities I’ve used in my recipe do not pose any health risk. However, do check whether your supplier is trustworthy and whether you might have any allergies, etc. I’m not an expert on this topic, I focus on the science of its use and am not liable for the recipe/information given here, always use an expert’s advice.