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Marshmallows – a peak into a fascinating history
It’s like a cloud, white, light and fluffy. A typical example of a foam with plenty of air bubbles throughout coated in sugar and gelatin. It’s a bit of a hassle to make them (though certainly not impossible) but will teach you plenty along the way about sugar & gelatin. Once made (or bought), they work great over a campfire (thanks to that sugar it browns & crisps up super nice), in a cup of warm chocolate milk or just as a snack.
But, did you know that they started out as a health food? And that its name originates from a plant root?
Why a marshmallow is called a marshmallow
I learned why a marshmallow is called a marshmallow while listening to a podcast (Food Non-Fiction) about those fluffy edible clouds. Originally, marshmallows were actually made with marshmallow, more specifically marshmallow root. Marshmallow is a plant that grows in salt marshes, it is 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 inside the root. It was used to cure all sorts of mild illnesses such as coughs.
It didn’t just have health benefits though, mucilage can work as a gelling agent which means that it can thicken or ‘gel’ liquids, just like gelatin does. As a result, you could make something like a marshmallow out of it. 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.
Introduction of gelatin
Over time, the health benefits of a marshmallow became less relevant, but people still wanted a marshmallow. With the advent of commercially available gelatin towards the end of the 19th center, the marshmallow root was slowly substituted by this gelling agent. Nowadays, most marshmallows don’t contain marshmallow anymore (although you can still try to make your own), but are still called that way.
From hand made, to extrusion
Marshmallow production seems to have started in France where they were made in smaller batches. In the nineteenth century, marshmallows were made using the method that is still used by home cooks. In short: you cook a sugar syrup to create a high concentration of sugar and a thick syrup. You then beat up some egg whites to create a foam to which you add the sugar syrup and some gelatin (or marshmallow root) to stabilize the foam and create that stable fluffy cloud texture.
But as with any food, if something is popular, it will be scaled up to a larger production size at some point. This will bring down costs and make it easier to produce larger scales of the marshmallow. And in that case, you can’t keep on producing it by hand with small vessels, you have to start making changes.
Scaling up step 1: starch mogul process
It seems that egg proteins were quickly eliminated from the marshmallows when scaling them up. In the mid-20th century, factory production of marshmallows already took place without eggs.
The foam was made by whipping just gelatin in a sugar solution which proved to be strong enough to make a foam. When making them by hand you would have to wait for quite a while for them to cool down and make them easier to handle. However, they managed to make this process more efficient by using the starch mogul system.
In the starch mogul system the liquid marshmallow is deposited into corn starch moulds. You take a lot of corn starch, press a shape into it and then pour the marshmallow mixture into that cavity. The marshmallow will cool down inside the starch mould where then corn starch absorbs some of the moisture, helping to make nice and dry marshmallows.
Once the marshmallows are dried, the tray is inverted and the marshmallows and corn starch are separated again. This system is still commonly used for a variety of candy production and it meant an important speed change in the production of marshmallows since the marshmallows could just sit in the starch to finish off.
Scaling up step 2: continuous production
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 large continuous mixer where materials flow in and out continuously. In the extruder the ingredients are mixed and pressure goes up during mixing. By releasing pressure at the end of the extruder the marshmallow blows up and air is introduced. Not only is this be a lot faster, it also greatly reduces the amount of starch required.
Once the door for continuous processing had been opened, large scale and especially cheap production of marshmallows could really start off. 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 is how those fluffy light white pillows have transformed from a small scale ‘health’ product into a massive industry. Nowadays, milions of marshmallows are made each year using highly efficient production lines.
If you’d like to go back into time a little, try to make marshmallows with marshmallow root. And if not, buy some marshmallows and roast them.
Marshmallow, Food-Info, July-1, 2017, link
The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets p.430-431
NCA, Marshmallows, link
Union confectionery equipment, starch mogul (visited 2017)
NID confectionery systems, mini mogul (visited 2017)
Alexandra Deters, Janina Zippel, Nils Hellenbrand, Dirk Pappai, Cathleen Possemeyer, Andreas Hensel, Aqueous extracts and polysaccharides from Marshmallow roots (Althea officinalis L.): Cellular internalisation and stimulation of cell physiology of human epithelial cells in vitro, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Volume 127, Issue 1, 2010, Pages 62-69, link
Confectionery machine, patent from 1904 describing an invention to dose marshmallows better, link