Marshmallows From Scratch: A Simple, Sticky How-To

Dec 16, 2011
Originally published on December 21, 2011 6:42 am

A few years ago, Jennifer Reese lost her job, so she decided it was the perfect time to save money by undertaking "all those exciting Little House on the Prairie cooking jobs" she'd been curious to try. Reese was an ambitious cook, and her enthusiasm knew no bounds: She wasn't just baking bread or grinding peanut butter. She fried potato chips, made Pop-Tarts, stretched curds into mozzarella, infused vermouth, fermented kimchee — and, while she was at it, raised her own chickens, turkeys and goats at her home in the San Francisco Bay area.

"But at the same time I was thinking, this is really absurd," Reese tells NPR's Melissa Block. "I'm not going to save money by baking bread or making cheese; this is a romantic fantasy. So while I was doing it, I ran this cost/benefit analysis while I was going along." The result of that analysis is Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, a chronicle of Reese's trial-and-error odyssey to figure out which foods are worth the effort of making yourself, and which foods you should just buy right off the grocery shelf.

With each recipe in the book, Reese includes a "hassle factor" — ranging from "none at all" to "truly a pain in the [BEEP]" to "you will want to bludgeon yourself with your rolling pin about halfway through this project." (You can find recipes for two "worth it to make yourself" foods — hot dog buns and Worcestershire sauce — below.)

Reese attempted to make foods at home that might never occur to you to make from scratch — like marshmallows. "Oh, they just taste so much better. They're just more delicious," Reese says. "They don't turn out to be cheaper ... but they are better." So homemade marshmallows it is. Reese guided Block through the surprisingly simple make-your-own-marshmallow process:

First, the ingredients: granulated sugar, confectioner's sugar, gelatin, vanilla, egg whites, cornstarch, corn syrup — and some store-bought marshmallows, for comparison.

To start out, dissolve gelatin in water in a small saucepan over low heat. (For the full, detailed recipe, scroll down to the bottom of the page)

Then, in a larger saucepan bring granulated sugar, corn syrup and water to a fast boil — it must reach 265 F on the candy thermometer.

Meanwhile, separate two eggs and drop the whites into the mixer. Whisk until they are firm and glossy.

As soon as the sugar syrup hits 265 F, start pouring it slowly and steadily into the egg whites — beating the whole time. Add the gelatin as well, keep beating, and, once the bowl is cool to the touch, whisk in the vanilla.

If it looks floppy, don't panic, Reese advises — just keep beating: "It will eventually come together and become a beautiful cloud — puffy, white, billowing cloud."

Then, pour the sticky, shiny goo onto a 9x13 cookie sheet that has been lightly greased and prepared with a bed of cornstarch and confectioner's sugar. Spread the marshmallow out smoothly, and let it sit overnight.

In the morning, using kitchen shears, cut the marshmallows into 36 squares.

Cut into cubes, they look fantastic, but they're not the Jet-Puffed marshmallow from your childhood. Will they stand up to store-bought? To find out, Block brought her homemade marshmallows to some of the harshest and hungriest food critics around — the staff at All Things Considered.

NPR arts correspondent and frequent guest host Lynn Neary was impressed. "That's really good," she said. "I think it's better than store-bought. I like the texture better. ... [It's] a little creamier. And sweet. Sweet, but not too sweet."

All Things Considered co-host Robert Siegel agreed: "That's amazing. It tastes exactly like a marshmallow, except there's no fire around it," he said. "It's terrific! I've never had homemade marshmallows before!"

Recipe: Marshmallows

Like most Americans, I grew up thinking a marshmallow was a stiff, eraserlike confection, nominally edible, used in school construction projects involving toothpicks or dropped in hot chocolate. Neither candy nor cookie, a marshmallow was a gummy droid, entirely artificial and not all that enticing. My kids used to eat them only when there was nothing sweet left in the cupboard except raisins. To concoct a marshmallow at home seemed impossible. And to concoct at home a marshmallow that resembles a Kraft Jet-Puffed may be impossible.

After you have tasted a sugar-white homemade marshmallow you will not care. Homemade marshmallows are fairy food, pillowy, quivering and soft.

Make it or buy it? Make it.

Hassle: Negligible, provided you have a mixer (a hand-held mixer is fine if you're strong and patient) and a candy thermometer. If you don't have a candy thermometer, buy one. Cheap and useful.

Cost comparison: The most basic homemade marshmallow costs 10 cents. Kraft Jet- Puffed marshmallows: 4 cents apiece. On the other hand, high-end marshmallows like the Whole Foods brand: 50 cents.

Makes 36 marshmallows

Three 1/4-ounce packets unflavored gelatin

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

1 cup light corn syrup

2 egg whites

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/4 cup cornstarch

1/4 cup confectioner's sugar

In a tiny saucepan, over low heat, dissolve the gelatin in 7 tablespoons of water. It will be pale beige and viscous. Turn off the heat.

In a larger saucepan, heat the granulated sugar and corn syrup with 1/2 cup water.

Bring to a boil, stirring until dissolved. Let it boil until it registers 265 F on a candy thermometer.

Meanwhile, in the bowl of a mixer, begin whisking the egg whites. Beat until firm and glossy. As soon as the sugar syrup registers 265 F, begin pouring it in a slow steady stream into the egg whites, beating constantly. Add the gelatin and continue beating. When you start, the hot liquid will slosh around the bowl and you will think it is hopeless; by the time you are done, the mixture will have swollen into a luxuriant white cloud. Whisk until the bowl is cool to the touch.

Whisk in the vanilla.

Lightly grease a rimmed cookie sheet. Mix together the cornstarch and confectioner's sugar and sift half onto the cookie sheet. You want a really generous bed of powder. On top of this, spread the marshmallow and smooth the top. Let sit overnight.

In the morning, cut the marshmallows into 36 pieces with a sharp knife. If they stick, dip the knife in water. (Damp scissors can also help with the job.) Toss the marshmallows in the leftover powder; you want all the exposed sides of the marshmallows to be lightly coated in powder, which will keep them from sticking to each other.

Store in a cookie tin or resealable plastic bag. They keep indefinitely, though they become crustier and less appealing after a week or so.

Excerpted from Make The Bread, Buy The Butter: What You Should and Shouldn't Cook from Scratch — 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods by Jennifer Reese. Copyright 2011 by Jennifer Reese. Published by Free Press.

Hot Dog Buns

One day we had a package of hot dogs to use up, but no buns. I've served naked hot dogs rolling around on a plate before, but no one in my household is very happy when I do. Likewise, I'm never very happy to go to the supermarket. I decided to try out the bun recipe in The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion, a cookbook that has seldom steered me wrong. Mixing and kneading the dough took five minutes. I left it to rise for three hours and went about my day.

Shortly before dinner, I shaped the dough into logs, let them rise briefly, and put them in the oven. They were lopsided and lumpish when they emerged, and didn't offer a perfectly tidy cradle for the hot dogs. "People rely on hot dog buns to hold their hot dogs," said Mark, frowning. But once he started eating, even he had to concede that these were superlative hot dog buns, slightly sweet and yeasty, soft and rich.

I found myself reflecting on how bad most hot dog buns are. How we take for granted their badness, how inured we are to their badness. How I always throw away what's left after the last bite of hot dog because the bread has the texture of foam rubber. But hot dog buns don't need to be bad! We were eating these hot dog buns as if they were warm sourdough rolls. Moreover, they were cheaper than buns from the supermarket.

Make it or buy it? If you have time, make it. You can buy delicious bread and adequate bagels, but you cannot buy a good hot dog bun.

Hassle: Slight, though you have to plan ahead

Cost comparison: Homemade: 17 cents a bun. Ball Park buns: 37cents. Sara Lee: 55 cents.

Makes 10 buns

1 cup milk

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1 large egg

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup whole-wheat flour

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon instant yeast

Neutral vegetable oil, for greasing

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the milk, butter, egg, flours, sugar, salt, and yeast and knead with the dough hook until you have a smooth dough.

Scoop up the dough, grease the bowl, and return the dough to the bowl. Cover with a clean, damp dish towel and let the dough rise. It will be puffed and ready in about 1 hour, but you can leave it longer.

Gently deflate the dough and divide into 10 pieces. Shape each lump of dough into a petite bun-sized log. Make them as neat as you can, because every flaw in the design will be exaggerated in the finished product.

Place on a greased or parchment-lined cookie sheet, 1 1/2 inches apart. Drape with the same damp towel. Let rise for 30 minutes. This is dough with Frankenstein inclinations, so don't let the buns rise much longer than 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 F.

Bake the buns for 12 to 15 minutes, until golden. The original recipe says to cool the buns, but I would eat them soon. Like, immediately. If you don't eat them immediately, store in a plastic bag at room temperature for up to 5 days. Freeze for longer storage.

Excerpted from Make The Bread, Buy The Butter: What You Should and Shouldn't Cook from Scratch — 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods by Jennifer Reese. Copyright 2011 by Jennifer Reese. Published by Free Press.

Worcestershire Sauce

I'm aware that it sounds obsessive to make your own Worcestershire, a condiment you probably use only occasionally, in minute quantities. But wait until you taste this stuff. It's black and shiny, almost iridescent, with so much umami you'll want to eat it with a spoon. Credit goes to Emeril Lagasse for this knockout recipe.

Make it or buy it? Make it.

Hassle: You babysit the sauce all day, but it's not a needy baby.

Cost comparison: A pint of homemade costs about $8. Lea & Perrins: $9.50

Makes about 1 quart

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 large onions, chopped

2 serrano chiles, chopped, with seeds

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Two 2-ounce cans anchovies, drained

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 lemon, peel and white pith removed and discarded

2 cups dark corn syrup

1 cup molasses

1 quart distilled white vinegar

1/4 pound fresh horseradish, peeled and grated

In a heavy pot over high heat, combine the oil, onions and chiles. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables are soft, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, pepper, anchovies, cloves, salt, lemon, corn syrup, molasses, vinegar, 2 cups water and the horseradish. Bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mixture barely coats a wooden spoon, about 6 hours.

Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl and let cool to room temperature. Store in a bottle, preferably one with a spigot. Keeps in the refrigerator indefinitely.

Excerpted from Make The Bread, Buy The Butter: What You Should and Shouldn't Cook from Scratch — 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods by Jennifer Reese. Copyright 2011 by Jennifer Reese. Published by Free Press.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.


And I'm Melissa Block, with the itch to make something from scratch. And why not something seasonal, something that would never have occurred to me to make at home if I hadn't been persuaded by a new book from Jennifer Reese, who describes homemade marshmallows as fairy food - pillowy, quivering and soft.

JENNIFER REESE: Oh, they just taste so much better. They're fluffier and they're just more delicious. They don't turn out to be cheaper but they are better.

BLOCK: So, homemade marshmallows it will be.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) It's a marshmallow world in the winter, when the snow comes to cover the ground.

BLOCK: Jennifer Reese joined me from San Francisco to guide me through the marshmallow-making process, which turned out to be surprisingly simple. You'll find the full recipe at It involves gelatin dissolved in water and a fast boil of sugar, water and corn syrup.

REESE: Yeah, this is the sugar syrup that makes everything happen. Now you turn on the stove to high and let her rip. And you want to let it boil 'til it gets to about 265 degrees Fahrenheit.

BLOCK: Meanwhile, we separate a couple of eggs and the whites go into the mixer.


BLOCK: They need to be beaten until they're firm and glossy, so time to put the hammer down on the Kitchen-Aid.


BLOCK: It's like a race here, Jennifer. Will the egg whites be beaten before the sugar syrup reaches 265 degrees?


BLOCK: OK. The sugar syrup is at a furious boil and the egg whites are coming along nicely. Ooh, it's getting so fluffy. Once the sugar syrup is hot enough, it gets whipped into the egg whites along with the gelatin and some vanilla.


BLOCK: OK. Now, Jennifer, it's looking really sloppy. Is that good?

REESE: Yeah, it's fine. You just have to let it go and let it keep beating and it'll eventually come together and become a beautiful cloud - puffy, white, billowing cloud.

BLOCK: Which, after many minutes, it does. And then we pour the whole beautiful, sticky, shiny goo onto a prepared cookie sheet. That's going to sit overnight. So, let's go back to Jennifer Reese and the book that inspired us to set out on our marshmallow adventure. It's called "Make the Bread, Buy the Butter," and it chronicles her odyssey through trial and error of figuring out what foods are worth the effort of making yourself and what you should just buy right off the shelf.

REESE: I've always been a really avid and ambitious cook, and a few years ago I lost my job and I had this moment of thinking, well, you know, I'm going to save all this money to do all those exciting "Little House on the Prairie" cooking jobs that I've always wanted to try.

BLOCK: Jennifer Reese's enthusiasm knew no bounds. So, she wasn't just baking bread or grinding peanut butter, she was frying up potato chips, making her own Pop-Tarts, stretching curds into mozzarella, infusing vermouth, curing pastrami and fermenting kimchee, not to mention raising chickens, turkeys and goats at her home in the San Francisco Bay Area. Jennifer Reese includes a hassle factor with each recipe in her book, ranging from none at all to truly a pain in the (beep), to you will want to bludgeon yourself with your rolling pin about halfway through this project.

REESE: Anything was fair game. Worcestershire sauce - oh yeah, I'm going to look up a recipe. And I tried it and it was absolutely stupendous. Pastrami was a lot of work, a lot of work.

BLOCK: Was it worth it, the pastrami?

REESE: Yeah, it was worth it in the moment but I haven't done it since.

BLOCK: Tell me about the Worcestershire sauce. You rave about this in the book.

REESE: Yeah. I've only actually made it once because I use very little Worcestershire sauce. I mean, how many bottles do you go through in a lifetime?

BLOCK: One, I think.

REESE: Yeah, it was just black and tarry and it just had so much flavor. And, you know, taste it against the kind, you know, in the paper-wrapped bottle, it was just outstanding. It wasn't quite as vinegary and thin. I think it's really worth doing because you only have to do it so rarely.

BLOCK: You know, I have to ask, Jennifer, how big a pantry and a freezer you must have, because at certain points it seems like you have camembert ripening in the closet and sauerkraut fermenting or doing whatever sauerkraut does, and you have vermouth infusing and pancetta that is aging hanging from your pipes. It sounds like your house basically got turned into an experimental larder for a long time.

REESE: It was crazy. It was crazy. There were, like, jars of yogurt and creme fraiche on the counter. And I had this immense prosciutto that I had made sitting in the refrigerator. Yeah, and the cheese situation got crazy. I was making cheese every day for a while because it was so exciting to do.

BLOCK: Well, since your premise here is make it or buy it, let's tick through a few of these and you tell me whether we should be making it buying it, OK?


BLOCK: Hot dog buns.

REESE: Hot dog buns, I think you should make, because they are so much more delicious than what you can buy. They also cost less and they're quite easy.

BLOCK: Really? OK. Bacon. You make your own bacon. Make it or buy it?

REESE: You know, I had made my own bacon and it's delicious. But you can buy bacon, and unless you have a smoker - and if you're going to try to smoke it in your own house, as I have done, I think it's probably easier to buy it. It's definitely easier to buy it. I think it's probably worth buying.

BLOCK: Well, we did hot dog buns - how about ketchup? Make it or buy it?

REESE: Ketchup, I made a number of different ketchup and I was pretty sure that homemade ketchup would have to be more delicious than Heinz, but then I had a ketchup-tasting party and everybody preferred the Heinz. Because if it doesn't taste like Heinz, it's not really ketchup.

BLOCK: Right.

REESE: That's not necessarily a good thing. It's just the way it is. You know, if it's a little different, it's not ketchup.

BLOCK: Which brings us back to our marshmallows. Now, I've cut them into cubes, they're dusted with powdered sugar and they look fantastic, but they're not the classic jet-puffed marshmallow everyone remembers from their childhood. So, would mine stand up to store-bought? I brought them to the harshest and hungriest food critics known to humankind - the staff of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Starting with a man of very discriminating taste, my co-host Robert Siegel.


BLOCK: It tastes like a marshmallow.

SIEGEL: It tastes exactly like a marshmallow, except there's no fire around it. No, it's great. It's terrific. It's quite marshmallow-y. You made these? These are delicious. Really, really good.

BLOCK: Lynn Neary has arrived.

NEARY: That's really good. I think it's better than store-bought. I like the texture better. It's a little creamier.

SIEGEL: Those are the way to make them, yeah.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) The marshmallow without being friendly. Here we are about the evergreen tree. And...

BLOCK: And if you want to try making the marshmallows yourself, you can find the recipe and a step-by-step photo guide at our website, We also have the recipes for hot dog buns and Worcestershire sauce from Jennifer Reese's book, "Make the Bread, Buy the Butter."


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) The world is a snowball just for its snow. You better get out and roll it along. Oh, it's a yum, yummy world made for sweethearts. Take a walk with your favorite guy. It's a sugar (unintelligible), what if spring is late. In winter, it's a marshmallow world. It's a marshmallow... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.