A perfectly golden exterior, a gooey center, and a smooth, dripping chunk of chocolate. There’s something special about s’mores that makes them warm and cozy, and a must-have snack at any campfire. And if there is something in which I stand out, it is in making the perfect one.
The key is heating the marshmallows well, but what exactly that means is often a contentious point of contention around the campfire. If you like your fluffy white treats burnt to a crisp and still cold on the inside, that’s your prerogative. On the other hand, if you prefer the gooey warmth of a perfectly chocolatey s’more, you can use science to achieve it.
Making good s’mores is all about technique.
To make the perfectly toasted marshmallow, you have to be patient, says Courtney Gaine, longtime s’mores expert, president and CEO of The Sugar Association. Speed up the process and your marshmallow will catch fire instantly, resulting in a treat charred on the outside while still cold on the inside.
Take your time while toasting. Start with the low and slow method: Resist the urge to move closer to the heat source, and instead pass the skewered marshmallow over the coals near the edge of the fire, or six to eight inches above the flames. Rotate your stick to facilitate even cooking. Hold there for three to five minutes, or until the marshmallow begins to puff up and turn golden.
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Similar to cooking meat, you want to make sure the inside gets hot before the outside burns. After all, it’s the sticky center of the white fluff that makes a s’more so delicious, and this is exactly what this cooking method accomplishes. First, the relatively low heat (90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit) breaks down the gelatin in the marshmallow almost immediately. The temperature also expands the air pockets within the sugary treat, making it larger and softer as it heats up, turning the center into a sweet treat. Finally, the heat breaks the bonds that bind the fructose and glucose molecules to the sugar, allowing the marshmallow to expand further and develop more nuanced flavors.
Then, when the marshmallow begins to swell, move it closer to the heat. You want to place it where the tips of the flames can only lick the mallow, not gobble it up. At a temperature close to 250 degrees, the Maillard reaction will start. This chemical process occurs when the amino acids in the gelatin and the hot sugar interact, causing the exterior of the marshmallow to begin to brown and take on a toasty flavor.
At this point, your treat may start to warp or spin around on your spit. This means it’s perfectly soft on the inside and it’s time to caramelize the outside so it’s crisp around the edges. This means it’s time to move the mallow to the side of the hottest base of the flame or closer to the hot coals where the caramelization process can occur at temperatures around 320 degrees. As the sugar breaks down in the heat and you see your treat begin to bubbly and brown even more, new compounds will emerge, resulting in an even darker exterior.
This process shouldn’t take more than 10-20 seconds, so be vigilant and careful not to set your marshmallow on fire, unless that’s what you want.
When the outside turns mottled medium brown to dark brown, it’s time for s’mores.
How to make the perfect s’more
When you’re ready to assemble your s’more, slide the warm marshmallow off the stick onto a graham cracker topped with a chocolate chunk. But move fast, because while milk chocolate melts easily, around 90 to 95 degrees, if the air temperature is even a little lower than that, your marshmallow will get cold too quickly and you won’t be able to melt the chocolate. That’s why Gaine recommends prepping all the ingredients ahead of time so you’re ready to assemble as soon as the mallow is roasted.
When you release the warm white fuzz, the milk chocolate will soften quickly. If you, like Gaine, prefer your chocolate to defend itself when you bite into it, allow your marshmallow to cool for 20 seconds before transferring it from your roaster. You can also get this crunch more easily by opting for dark chocolate. This variety has a higher melting point (around 110 to 115 degrees) due to its lower fat and sugar content. This allows it to stay solid longer.
Finally, after you’ve given the mallow a few seconds to cool to make sure you don’t burn your mouth, eat it and enjoy. And keep a few napkins on hand to clean up the sticky, chocolaty mess.
Upgrade your bindings
While the classic s’more can be beautiful in its simplicity (marshmallow, milk chocolate, whole-grain crackers), a s’more can be so much more. Gaine is a traditionalist when it comes to the three basics, but in my opinion you can definitely play around with more sophisticated or delicious ingredients.
My favorite upgrade is ditching the chocolate for a peanut butter cup. Once you experience the warm combination of melted chocolate and smooth peanut butter, you’ll never look back. You can also try chocolate flavors such as raspberry, coffee or caramel, to give it a more innovative touch.
[Related: Stay-at-home science project: Bake s’mores using the power of the sun]
You can also add to the classic by slipping a tablespoon of peanut butter, jelly, or hazelnut spread onto your graham crackers before adding the marshmallow. Alternatively, swap out the graham crackers for chocolate chip cookies, fudge-coated graham crackers that negate the need for extra chocolate (or add even more), or my favorite cookie swap: Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookies like Tagalongs from Girl Scouts.
It goes without saying that the possibilities are endless, especially given the abundance of vegan, gluten-free, and allergen-friendly s’mores toppings. And as long as your marshmallow doesn’t turn into a pile of burnt sugar, you can enjoy this delicious outdoor treat however you like.