1. Food

What are Marshmallows?

Marshmallow history, varieties, and facts.

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Marshmallows
Photo by Kate Ter Haar [flickr]

They’re the fluffy, white, confections of mystery. What are marshmallows made of, where did they come from, and how are they related to the marshmallow plant? Marshmallows have a history that reaches back to ancient civilizations and are still a big part of American tradition and pop culture today.

What are Marshmallows?

Modern marshmallows are a mixture of gelatin and egg whites that have been whipped into a foam and then combined with corn syrup, sugar, and sometimes vanilla or other flavorings. Marshmallows are usually coated in a mixture of corn starch and confectioners sugar to prevent their sugary surface from sticking.

Marshmallow History

The marshmallow plant, Althaea officinalis, was used medicinally in ancient times to treat sore throats. The Egyptians added honey to this concoction, which may have been the first predecessor to marshmallow candy.

The Egyptians used the soft, spongy pith of the marshmallow plant, which was boiled in honey or sugar syrup, to create a chewy candy-like substance. In 19th century France, candy makers whipped the sap of the marshmallow plant into a fluffy confection which even more closely resembled the modern marshmallow. Although this candy was quite popular in France, the process of extracting the sap was quite laborious. Candy makers began to look for an alternate way to create the fluffy, chewy, white confection and found it with egg whites and gelatin.

The replacement of marshmallow sap with gelatin and egg whites gave birth to the modern marshmallow. In 1948, American inventor Alex Doumak created a fully automated marshmallow making process, which made them even easier and more inexpensive to produce. The automated extraction created the recognizable cylindrical shape of marshmallows that most people are familiar with today.

The Modern Marshmallow

Today, marshmallows come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and flavors. From jumbo to miniature, there is a marshmallow to fit every application. Jumbo marshmallows are often used to make smores, while miniature marshmallows are used for hot cocoa, cookies, and other confections. Marshmallows can even be found in a variety of flavors such as vanilla, strawberry, or even peppermint. Marshmallows can even be cut into festive shapes, like Christmas trees or Easter bunnies.

Marshmallow fluff, a spreadable version of the marshmallow, is a favorite sandwich spread for many American children. It is often paired with peanut butter for a salty sweet sandwich that kids adore. Marshmallow fluff is also used in many homemade fudge recipes.

Marshmallow Tradition

Peeps, the popular Easter candy, are simply marshmallows shaped as baby chicks and rolled in colorful sugar. These fluffy Easter treats have become a staple Easter basket item and have become a pop culture icon.

Thanks to the new automated marshmallow making process in the mid 20th century, marshmallow became a common ingredient in American cooking. From ambrosia salad, to Christmas cookies, and sweet potato casserole, marshmallows were no longer just a novelty. Even today, Thanksgiving Day wouldn't be the same without the gooey, sticky, sweet marshmallow topping on sweet potato casserole.

Marshmallows have become a part of childhood traditions thanks to smores and rice crispy treats. No summer camp or back yard campfire experience would be the same without roasting marshmallows for smores. Learning to make the perfect toasted marshmallow is a memorable childhood experience for most. Rice crispy treats, which have gone from a favorite homemade treat to a mass-produced snack bar, use marshmallows as the gooey, sweet glue that holds the rice crispies together.

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