Appears in

Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

  • About

marshmallows are light, spongy confections made of sugar or corn syrup, water, and a gelling agent that have been whipped and set to capture an airy density. The modern marshmallow is also typically coated in cornstarch, sugar, or chocolate, as naked marshmallow is pertinaciously sticky to the touch.

The marshmallow takes its name from the marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis), a wetland weed native to Europe. A spitting image of its cousin the hollyhock, the marsh mallow sports a tall, sturdy stalk and pale pink flowers. Mucilage (similar to sap) is found throughout the plant’s body but especially in its thick, fibrous root. Physicians of the ancient world recommended extracting the mucilage by boiling the root and consuming it with milk, honey, or wine to cure a variety of ailments. The Greek naturalist Theophrastus noted that meats cooked with marsh mallow cleaved together—a dramatic exhibition of the plant’s supposed flesh-healing powers! In fact, he was witnessing the stickiness that would make the mucilage the first gelling agent of the marshmallow.