Monday, December 16, 2013

Homemade Marshmallows - Yes, Virginia, It's Candy

A few years ago, homemade marshmallows were all the rage on cooking bulletin boards I frequent. I gave it a try. They were OK but kind of chewy and underwhelming. I thought, "Well, I've done that now. Meh." Then my sister Kellie tried them last year, and discovered where my effort probably had fallen short (or long, actually). It's been a while, but with the cold weather and the increased consumption of hot cocoa, I thought I'd try again. The improved result is below. They aren't difficult, but there are two crucial things you have to get right.

In a way, marshmallows are cubes of super-whipped Jell-O. A sugar & corn syrup mixture is cooked to 240F, then beaten into softened unflavored gelatin. The mixture is whipped and whipped at high speed in a stand mixer, and fluffs up into clouds of sticky goodness. Given that the syrup is cooked to a specific temperature, marshmallows are, by definition, candy.

So, the first important factor in successful marshmallow making is that cooking the syrup to this specific temperature is crucial. The recipe I used specifies cooking to 240F, or the soft ball stage. There are other marshmallow recipes that call for it to be cooked to a higher temperature. I hope to experiment with different recipes in the future, but this one works. (If you are unfamiliar with the sugar temperature stages used in candymaking, here's a basic reference: Cooking and Testing Candy Mixtures.) If the syrup does not reach the specified temperature, then the candy won't set up properly.

So, to make this recipe you will need a GOOD candy thermometer. This means the thermometer should be accurate and go up to at least 310F, and should have a clip that attaches to the side of the saucepan. Cheap thermometers are notoriously inaccurate, and can go out of scale even if they were accurate to begin with. Before making candy I always test my thermometer in a pan of boiling water to make sure it will read 212F.  

The second important factor is how long to beat the gelatin and syrup. The recipe below - and others I have read - specify around 15 minutes. The truth is that this is too long if you have a powerful mixer. You can't make a good batch of marshmallows with a hand mixer; you do need a stand mixer with some horsepower. If, however, you have a professional-grade mixer like I do, it's so powerful that the requisite whipping can be done in a shorter amount of time. If you are not aware of this and you whip the mixture too long, it will start to break down. This will result in flat, chewy marshmallows. This is what happened to me before - I trusted the timing in the recipe, and that was too long for my KitchenAid Professional 600. This is the breakthrough that my sister had. She also has a powerful mixer, and after a few experiments she discovered that her marshmallow mixture was really ready in about half the time.

The lesson here is that you will probably have to make a few batches to figure out what the right whipping time is for your mixer. Start with 5 minutes, and then keep an eye on it. After that, stop the mixer every couple of minutes and lift the whip, observing the consistency of the fluff. You may notice a point at which the volume seems to decrease and the mixture slumps a bit when the power is stopped. If that happens, you've gone too far. (I've had some success by stopping at this point, softening another 1/2 packet of gelatin in cold water, then adding a little more water and bringing it to a boil. Then, slowly add the hot liquid gelatin to the fluff with the mixer running and whipping another minute or so. This isn't a cure-all, but it might rescue a batch to the point where it's usable.) The batch I made for this blog post was slightly overwhipped, I think, but the resulting marshmallows are acceptable.

I suggest cutting this recipe in half and using an 8x8 pan for your initial experiments. Once you've mastered the basic recipe, then you can start experimenting with different flavorings -- peppermint is popular. Marshmallows can be dipped in tempered chocolate, or rolled in coatings. The possibilities are endless!

Homemade Marshmallows

Adapted from Alton Brown

3 packages unflavored gelatin
1 cup ice cold water, divided
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar*
1/4 cup cornstarch*
Nonstick spray

Place the gelatin into the bowl of a stand mixer along with 1/2 cup of the water. Have the whisk attachment standing by.

In a small saucepan combine the remaining 1/2 cup water, granulated sugar, corn syrup and salt. Place over medium high heat, cover and allow to cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Uncover, clip a candy thermometer onto the side of the pan and continue to cook until the mixture reaches 240F, approximately 7 to 8 minutes. The temperature will rise to 220F or so pretty quickly, but getting to 240F will be a much slower process. Once the mixture reaches this temperature, immediately remove from the heat.

Turn the mixer on low speed and, while running, slowly pour the sugar syrup down the side of the bowl into the gelatin mixture. (You don't want it to hit the spinning whisk and splatter.) Once you have added all of the syrup, increase the speed to high. Continue to whip until the mixture becomes very thick and is lukewarm. This could take anywhere from 5 minutes to 15 minutes, depending on your mixer. Add the vanilla during the last minute of whipping. While the mixture is whipping prepare the pans.

Combine the confectioners' sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Lightly spray a 13 by 9-inch metal baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Sift the sugar and cornstarch mixture liberally on the bottom and sides of the pan - you want a nice, solid, thick coating. Return the remaining mixture to the bowl for later use.

When ready, pour the mixture into the prepared pan, using a lightly oiled spatula for spreading evenly into the pan. Don't worry about getting the top too even at this point. Dust the top with enough of the remaining sugar and cornstarch mixture to lightly cover. Coat your hands with sugar/cornstarch mixture and lightly pat the top marshmallow mixture to even the top. Allow the marshmallows to sit uncovered for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.

Run a table knife along the edge of the pan to release the marshmallow block. Turn the marshmallows out onto a cutting board dusted with sugar/cornstarch; you may need to slam the pan down hard to get the candy to release from the bottom of the pan. Cut into 1-inch squares (or larger, if desired) using a pizza wheel dusted with the confectioners' sugar mixture. Once cut, lightly dust all sides of each marshmallow with the remaining mixture, using additional if necessary. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.

* You may need up to 1/2 cup each of the cornstarch and powdered sugar; have more standing by.

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