Marshmallow probably came first into being as a medicinal substance, since the mucilaginous extracts comes from the root of the marshmallow plant, Althaea officinalis, which were used as a remedy for sore throats. Concoctions of other parts of the marshmallow plant had medical purposes as well. The root has been used since Egyptian antiquity in a honey-sweetened confection useful in the treatment of sore throat. The later French version of the recipe, called pâte de guimauve, included an egg white meringue and was often flavored with rose water.
The use of marshmallow to make a sweet dates back to ancient Egypt, where the recipe called for extracting sap from the plant and mixing it with nuts and honey. Another pre-modern recipe uses the pith of the marshmallow plant, rather than the sap. The stem was peeled back to reveal the soft and spongy pith, which was boiled in sugar syrup and dried to produce a soft, chewy confection. Confectioners in early 19th century France made the innovation of whipping up the marshmallow sap and sweetening it, to make a confection similar to modern marshmallow. The confection was made locally, however, by the owners of small sweet shops. They would extract the sap from the mallow plant's root, and whip it themselves. The candy was very popular, but its manufacture was labour-intensive. In the late 19th century, French manufacturers thought of using egg whites or gelatin, combined with modified corn starch, to create the chewy base. This avoided the labour-intensive extraction process, but it did require industrial methods to combine the gelatin and corn starch in the right way.
Another milestone in the development of the modern marshmallow was the extrusion process by the American Alex Doumak in 1948. This invention allowed marshmallows to be manufactured in a fully automated way. The method produced the cylindrical shape that is now associated with marshmallows. The process involves running the ingredients through tubes and then extruding the finished product as a soft cylinder, which is then cut into sections and rolled in a mixture of finely powdered cornstarch and confectioner's sugar.
Marshmallows, like most sweets, are sweetened with sucrose. They are currently prepared by the aeration of mixtures of sucrose and proteins to a final density of about 0.5 g/ml. The viscosity of the mixture, owing to the proteins, gelatin or egg albumin, prevents collapse of the air-filled cells.
- Most of the current brands of commercially available marshmallows in the United States are made and copacked by Kraft Foods and Doumak, Inc, under such names as Jet-Puffed, Campfire, Kidd and numerous "private label" store brands. Marshmallows are used in S'mores, Mallomars, MoonPies and other chocolate-coated treats, Peeps, Whippets and other sweets, Rice Krispies treats, ice cream flavors such as Rocky Road, as a topping for hot chocolate, candied yams, and in several other foodstuffs.
Marshmallows are manufactured in the United Kingdom by, amongst others, Haribo, Barrett, Princess, and numerous 'non-brand' companies including shops and supermarkets.
Marshmallows are popular in Asia, particularly in the previous colonies of the UK. One of the largest suppliers in Asia is Erko Foods, based in China. The company exports to 56 countries. Erko is also the market leader in the Middle East, where their Halal marshmallow is sold.