Welcome to Super Food Nerds, a column written in alternating installments by Rupa (food and beverage editor, culinary staff) and Jonathan (research librarian, same place). Each installment will be dedicated to a particular topic — how to DIY something you don’t normally DIY, how to perfect a dish usually taken for granted, plus best techniques, underlying chemistries and a handful of inexplicable preferences. Basically, if they can overthink it, they’re on it.
Confession time: I have a culinary degree and have worked at Food Network for almost a decade, and I have never given marshmallows a second thought. Sure, my favorite ice cream flavor is Rocky Road (mini marshmallows? Yes.). And I like s’mores as much as the next former Girl Scout, but I’ve never stopped to think about how marshmallows come into being.
It turns out, the process is shockingly easy. The marshmallow’s trademark springiness comes from egg whites that are beaten till airy and stiff, then whipped together with hot sugar syrup until the mixture is thick and ribbon-y (bakers call this Swiss meringue). It’s all then bound with a stabilizer, like gelatin. When they’re homemade, marshmallows come out creamier and richer than store-bought ones, with a more delicate sweetness. (Plus, they are even more amazing in s’mores.)
If you search online, there’s no shortage of recipes and ways to make marshmallows; most call for light corn syrup or golden syrup (if you’re British) because it’s a little easier to work with than just sugar alone, but having tried it both ways, I found the difference in difficulty to be marginal and the flavor of the all-sugar treats to be brighter.
The ingredient list for marshmallows is really remarkably basic: eggs, sugar, gelatin, vanilla extract and either powdered sugar or cornstarch. But the equipment list is a bit specialized. You’ll definitely want a candy thermometer, to make sure your sugar is adequately hot, and if you have the choice between a stand mixer and a hand mixer, go with the stand mixer. (It’s doable with a hand mixer, but takes a while.)
Once they’re made and set, cut the marshmallows into squares and immediately roll their sticky edges in a combo of cornstarch or powdered sugar (colleagues who have done this also like rice flour or potato starch, but those ingredients are trickier to find). I added ground cardamom to the mix for my first plain vanilla batch of marshmallows and really liked the subtle smokiness it brought to the mix.
So if a little subtle smokiness is good, a lot is better, right? The cardamom, coupled with the season, got me thinking about mulled cider — and how the only thing that could make the marshmallows better would be if they tasted like mulled cider. How? Reduce apple cider by about half to concentrate the flavor, bloom the gelatin in that liquid, add it to the sugar syrup, then add a combo of cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper and cloves to the meringue right before pouring it into the pan to set.
These come out ridiculously well, and their flavor belies their simplicity. They’d be good floating in hot chocolate or hot buttered rum, bruleed on top of a vanilla or gingerbread cupcake, melted into crispy treats or even roasted in a s’more. I haven’t tried them in Rocky Road ice cream yet, but that’s next on my list.
Get the recipe for the Mulled Cider Marshmallows here.
Get step-by-step instructions for making homemade marshmallows here.