Stupid Question ™
Feb. 1, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: What’s the origin of marshmallows, and why are they so flammable?
A: The squishy confections we call marshmallows were originally made from the root of a plant called the marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis).
The mallow family of plants is large (it includes cotton) and is known for its slimy, edible roots and leaves. The common mallow has been eaten for millennia—its boiled leaves were enjoyed by the ancient Greeks, Romans and Chinese. It was also eaten in Britain from prehistoric times up to about 1600, when it was largely replaced by spinach (which is far less slimy).
Not surprisingly, the marsh mallow is a mallow that grows in marshy areas. It can be 3 to 5 feet high, with pale pink flowers, velvety leaves, disc-shaped fruit and a long, whitish-yellow root. It is native to Europe and Asia, and has been introduced in the US, where it grows in coastal marshes from New York to Louisiana.
While the marsh mallow’s leaves and fruit are also edible, most attention has been focused on its root. It contains a sugary slime that was the basis for the first marshmallows.
There is some evidence that ancient Egyptian royalty used marsh mallow root extract for either food or medicine. But the road to Girl Scout campfires began with the marsh mallow root’s use in early European medicine.
The Greeks and Roman ascribed curative and laxative properties to the root, and it continued to be a medicine well into medieval times. Meanwhile, sugar was also being used medicinally, and hard candy as we know it (sticks, lozenges and so forth) were invented as medicines combining sugar with herbal extracts—including marsh mallow.
By around 1600, candy had gained the status of a pleasure in and of itself. Fruit flavors pushed aside the charms of marsh mallow root. Sometime in the mid-1800s, French cooks pioneered the marshmallow confection we know today, combining the root extract with sugar and egg whites.
These first marshmallows were shaped by hand, and later put into ornate molds. The now-familiar cylindrical shape is a US innovation (Americans have always been crazy for marshmallows) from 1948, when manufacturers started squeezing the marshmallow goo through pipes.
Today, marshmallows contain no marsh mallow. The good stuff has been replaced by gelatin or gum arabic. They’re made by heating sugar syrup up to about 260 degrees, to a state in which it forms a solid ball, combining it with the gelatin or gum arabic and egg whites, they puffing it with air and dusting it with sugar.
That’s why marshmallows are so flammable: sugar melts and burns at relatively low temperatures, and marshmallows today are almost 100 percent sugar.