The Marshmallow is a confection that, in its modern form, typically consists of sugar or corn syrup, water, gelatin that has been pre-softened in hot water, dextrose, and flavorings, whipped to a spongy consistency. The traditional recipe used an extract from the mucilaginous root of the marshmallow plant, a shrubby herb (Althaea officinalis), instead of gelatin; the mucilage was used to soothe sore throats.
Commercial marshmallows are a late-nineteenth-century innovation. Since Doumak's patented extrusion process of 1948, marshmallows are extruded as soft cylinders, cut in sections and rolled in a mix of finely powdered cornstarch and confectioner's sugar (icing sugar). Not all brands coat their marshmallows in confectioner's sugar. Most of the current brands of commercially available marshmallows in the United States and Canada 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, Peeps and other candy, Rice Krispie treats, ice cream flavors such as Rocky Road, on top of hot chocolate and candied yams, and in several other foodstuffs. Americans eat about 90 million pounds of marshmallows a year.
A popular camping or backyard tradition in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK is the toasting or roasting of marshmallows over a campfire or other open flame. A marshmallow is placed on the end of a stick or skewer and held over the fire, with care toward safety, until it turns golden brown. This creates a caramelized outer skin with a liquid, melted layer underneath. According to individual preference, the marshmallows are heated to various degrees — from gently toasted to a charred outer layer. The toasted marshmallow can either be eaten whole or the outer layer can be consumed separately and the rest of the marshmallow toasted again. S'mores are made by placing a toasted marshmallow on a slice of chocolate which is then placed between two graham crackers. Some companies mass produce pre-packaged S'mores.
It is possible to make marshmallows without gelatin by making them the traditional way, by using powdered marshmallow root (or by boiling chopped marshmallow roots in water), egg whites, cane sugar, and vanilla extract, although marshmallow root may be difficult to obtain. They also can be made using commercially-available gelatin alternatives. Other vegetable gums often make an unsatisfactory product that does not have the spring or firmness expected of gelatin-based marshmallows. Some marshmallows marketed as appropriate for vegans are made using carrageenan and agar as gelling agents.
Marshmallow fluff and other less firm marshmallow products generally contain little or no gelatin, which mainly serves to allow the familiar marshmallow confection to retain its shape. They generally use egg whites instead. Non-gelatin versions of this product may be consumed by ovo vegetarians.