The Mysterious Secret Ingredient

Reader Lilly writes:

What is the ineffable thing that gives marshmallows that almost chalky mouthfeel that they have? Egg whites? No. Sugar? No. Gelatin or vanilla? Couldn’t be. But that’s everything that’s in a marshmallow except for the water, so where does that texture come from?

The answer: corn starch. But that’s not an ingredient per se. Corn starch is actually a hidden component of powdered sugar which is what manufacturers use to “flour” marshmallows to keep them from sticking together. Corn starch is added to powdered sugar to absorb moisture and keep it from caking, usually in a proportion of about 3 percent. Not terribly much, but enough to give marshmallows that faintly cereal flavor and vaguely chalky texture.

3 thoughts on “The Mysterious Secret Ingredient”

  1. Many brands of marshmallows are even dusted with straight cornstarch, actually. I’m not sure if this is out of mercy to our teeth/tastebuds or due to differences in the way powdered sugar and cornstarch behave in shipping, etc. – cornstarch is waaaay more anti-stick over long periods of time than powdered sugar is.

    For homemade marshmallows, I like using part powdered sugar, part potato starch. For me, it hits the “sweet spot” without as much corn-starch-y-ness or straight sugar.

    Other non-traditional anti-sticking options that are good with only certain flavors of marshmallow: powdered citric acid mixed with granulated sugar for sweet-and-sour sugar coating; cocoa powder (use a really good one); toasted almond meal or shredded coconut; graham cracker crumbs; etc.


  2. hi,
    my mom adds corn starch to icing as well, in order to cut the tooth-hurting sweetness of buttercream but still getting a really stiff icing for forming decorations.
    love this site – i’m really glad smitten kitchen linked to it, i’ve had great fun going through your archives.
    mare 🙂

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