Why strawberry pretzel salad is the queen of all Jell-O salads

Southern Kitchen
Strawberry Pretzel Salad

In our series Saving Southern Recipes, we explore the deep heritage of Southern cooking through the lens of passed-down family recipes.

In the canon of congealed fruit salads, the strawberry pretzel salad takes the cake (or um, pie). This is my official assessment and I’m sticking to it. 

The history of Southern meals is centered around this idea of a meat and two sides. From what I have experienced and learned, this perfectly portioned plate was also accompanied by a small salad and oftentimes, a dessert. Salads weren’t always made to be an entree; in fact, in the South, they were never bigger than what a small crystal bowl could hold. My mother describes her childhood supper salads as consisting of iceberg lettuce, vegetables and a small amount of mayonnaise/dressing or a perfectly cut square of a Jell-O salad.

In 2018, surrounded by full plates of lettuce, it is hard for us to image that congealed sugar and flavoring could ever be considered as a salad. However, these dishes continue to be a mainstay of holiday meals, barbecues, showers and potlucks alike. We have the Jell-O corporation to personally thank for decades of congealed and molded fruits and sometimes vegetables. 

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With its many different variations, the strawberry pretzel salad seems to be amongst the most popular. The recipe is believed to have originated in the 1960s when the Joys of Jell-O cookbook was published. 

I’ll always be on board for any reason to start my meal with a dessert, so I gave this time-tested recipe a go. Having tried it twice, I suggest that you give yourself plenty of time to make this dish — the crust needs to cool and the boiled Jell-O needs to almost set before mixing in the fruit. Allow a little over an hour to compose the salad and at least a half day for it to set in the refrigerator. With any luck, you’ll be able to enjoy this well-loved dessert disguised as an appetizer.

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Strawberry Pretzel Salad

Serves: 12

Hands on time: 1 hour

Total time: 3 hours 

Ingredients

1 2/3 cup finely crushed pretzels

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted

2 cups sliced strawberries

2 cups sugar

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese

1 (8-ounce) container Cool Whip, plus more for serving

1 (15-ounce) can crushed pineapple in juice

1 (3-ounce) package strawberry Jell-O

Instructions

Heat oven to 350 degrees. 

In a second medium bowl, stir together the pretzels and butter. Press firmly into the bottom of a 9- by 13-inch baking dish. Bake until lightly browned and set, about 15 minutes. Let cool completely.

While the crust bakes and cools, stir together the sliced strawberries and 1 cup of the sugar in a medium bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit until the strawberries have given off their juices, about 45 minutes.

In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat together the cream cheese and remaining cup of sugar until smooth. Fold in the Cool Whip. Spread across the cooled crust.

Drain the pineapple and the strawberries, reserving all of the juices. Pour the juices into a 2-cup measuring cup and add enough water to reach 2 cups. Transfer to a small saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Immediately remove from the heat and whisk in the strawberry Jell-O. Let cool until almost set. Stir in the pineapple and strawberries and pour over the cream cheese layer. Cover and refrigerate until set. 

Serve topped with a dollop of Cool Whip.