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The History of Marshmallows
Image credit: Julia Bujalski

It’s Actually a Plant

There’s nothing better than hot chocolate with marshmallows on a cold winter day. But do you know the history behind these sweet, puffy treats? The biggest shock for many is learning that the marshmallow is actually a plant. Its scientific name is Althaea officinalis, and it grows mostly in Europe and Western Asia. It can get as high as six feet tall and features light pink flowers. It’s a member of the mallow family and grows in wet, marshy areas – hence the name marshmallow.

It Was First Used for Medicinal Properties

Ancient Greeks began to use the marshmallow plant to heal wounds and soothe sore throats as far back as the 9th century BCE. They also used a balm made from the marshmallow plant’s sap to soothe toothaches and bee stings. Later, Arab physicians used ground-up marshmallow leaves as an anti-inflammatory, and Romans used it as a laxative. By the Middle Ages, the marshmallow plant had developed quite the reputation for its medicinal properties and was used to treat everything from stomach upset to insomnia.

Egyptians Considered It a Delicacy

The Ancient Egyptians were the first to turn the marshmallow plant into a sweet treat, but it wasn’t anything like the marshmallows we enjoy today. Instead, they combined marshmallow sap with nuts and honey. The dish was reserved for nobility. The gods were said to enjoy the treat as well. However, despite the Egyptian delicacy, most cultures only ate marshmallow in times of famine, because the plant is tough and bitter.

The French Created Marshmallow Confections

Confectioners created guimauve – a French marshmallow treat – in 19th century France. The treat combined the plant’s medicinal properties with sweetness more akin to the Egyptian way of enjoying it. Pâté de guimauve was made from whipping dried marshmallow roots together with sugar, water, and egg whites. The result was an early version of the soft, puffy dessert that we enjoy today. Early versions of French marshmallow were sold in the form of lozenges and bars, and some doctors recommended consuming them for medicinal purposes.

The Recipe Was Tweaked When the Treat Caught On

The French treats were available to everyone, not just the upper class, and demand quickly grew for more. Confectioners and candy makers needed a way to speed up the production process. In the late 1800s, they created the starch mogul system, which used cornstarch molds. Around the same time, the sap from the marshmallow plant, which took over a day to dry, was replaced with gelatin, which was both more convenient and helped the marshmallows hold their shape better. Over time, the egg whites were also replaced. And even though the ingredients changed and the treats no longer contained sap from the marshmallow plant, the name stuck.

Image source: Persephone Bakery

Girl Scouts Created the S’more

Marshmallows were introduced in America in the early 1900s. They were first sold as penny candy and quickly gained popularity. In 1927, the Girl Scouts Handbook featured a recipe for “Some More,” a name which likely resulted from girls asking for more of the treat. The recipe called for readers to “toast two marshmallows over the coals to a crisp gooey state and then put them inside a graham cracker and chocolate bar sandwich." The name was later shortened from “Some More” to “s’mores,” which quickly became an American classic.

They Weren’t Mass Produced Until the 1950s

In 1948, Alex Doumak discovered the extrusion process, which revolutionized marshmallow production. Instead of having to make the marshmallows by hand, the new process involved piping the fluffy mixture through tubes and cutting it into equal pieces. In addition to giving marshmallows a more cylindrical shape, the process also pumped more air into them, giving them their signature fluffy texture. Kraft’s “Jet Puffed” marshmallows later used gas to blast the marshmallows at 200 pounds per square inch, giving them even more puff.

With the increase in mass production in the 1950s, marshmallows became so popular in the United States that they were incorporated into many recipes. Today, they are still as popular as ever – in fact, Americans consume over 90 million pounds of marshmallows each year! While they’re on store shelves all year around, the majority of marshmallow sales take place between October and December. Most marshmallows today are made using gelatin, sugar, corn syrup, cornstarch, confectioners’ sugar, and flavoring; honey, water, and invert sugar are also sometimes used. For those who do not wish to consume animal products (gelatin is not vegetarian or vegan), some companies now offer marshmallows made with vegan gelatin alternatives. Marshmallows also come in many sizes, such as mini and giant, and are sometimes shaped for festive reasons, such as the marshmallow Peeps often seen around Eastertime.

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