Check out this quick effortless crowd pleasing potluck recipe. Vintage 1950s ambrosia salad, perfect for every party, is made with canned fruit, marshmallows, coconut, and nuts (or not) in a creamy dressing.
You need to bring something to your potluck party. But not something boring.
Nothing is more embarrassing than bringing home a container full of your food that nobody ate.
And if kids will be at the party, you can be sure they will loudly vocalize their opinion of your recipe.
One kid-friendly and adult nostalgic dish everyone loves is ambrosia salad.
Nothing says potluck like ambrosia salad. It is the nectar of the gods, clearly meant to make an appearance at every summer barbecue, family holiday, and work party.
Ambrosia salad is a dessert salad made with canned pineapple, mandarin oranges, maraschino cherries, fresh grapes, marshmallows, and coconut. Mix the ambrosia salad with whipped cream and sour cream and chill for 2 hours.
How I Rediscovered My Favorite Dessert Salad
When my mother-in-law cleaned out her house, I “inherited” my husband’s grandmother’s old recipe cards. I thought I had hit the jackpot. Recipes galore from a nostalgic past.
No trendy vegan gluten-free paleo recipes in the bunch. Just good old-fashioned yum.
The first night I tried the recipe for ambrosia salad, my husband got excited.
“Fruit salad!” he said with a happy gleam in his eye.
“Well, ambrosia salad, dear,” I replied.
“No, it’s fruit salad. I had it all the time as a kid. Ambrosia is a drink.”
Well, Google Home soon straightened him out, as only Google Home can. The fruit salad of his childhood was, in fact, a 1950s ambrosia salad recipe.
Not the original 3-ingredient ambrosia salad made back in the 1800s with orange slices, grated coconut, and sugar. But rather a more classic version many of us remember from family Christmas parties.
Some people call it 5 Cup Salad because you throw in 1 cup of each type of canned fruit, plus 1 cup of marshmallows. Five cups exactly.
Now that might seem like an easy recipe to remember. But the problem today is that no can of fruit contains exactly 1 cup.
Maybe in the 1950s you got exactly 1 cup of fruit in every can. But not anymore.
Which means if you are very picky, you would have to buy 2 cans of each fruit. And then use 1 can plus part of the other can to make 1 cup. What a pain.
However, a salad can have varying amounts of individual ingredients without throwing the recipe off (unlike a baked good that requires recipe precision).
So I modified the recipe to fit the common amount of fruit that comes in a can. It is still as easy to make. It just isn't a 5 cup salad anymore.
What is Ambrosia Salad?
Ambrosia salad originated in the South in the 1800s. It began as a 3-ingredient salad. Layers of orange slices and shaved coconut, sprinkled with sugar. Simplicity itself.
This easy ambrosia salad recipe appeared in cookbooks in the late 1800s. However, it didn’t stay as simple. Creative cooks modified the recipe, adding additional fruits and sometimes sauces.
Though the ingredients varied between recipes, all the ambrosia salad recipes contained coconut. Chefs disagreed on whether the coconut should be canned, dried, or fresh, but they all agreed it should be in the salad.
Over the years, ambrosia salad became an easy-to-whip-up salad with (mostly) canned fruit -- instead of fresh fruit -- along with coconut.
You may also be interested in this post on what to serve with fruit salad.
How Did Marshmallows Creep in?
Ambrosia is a fruit salad. So how did the marshmallows slip in?
Product marketing! Wait, what?
Recipe evolution frequently involves a food manufacturer. The ambrosia salad recipe development is no exception.
A confectionery company called Whitman’s introduced a new product in the 1920s called Marshmallow Whip. They marketed it for use in dessert dishes, providing a subtle marshmallow flavor.
In 1926 Whitman’s began publishing recipes with Marshmallow Whip in syndicated columns.
You guessed it. Ambrosia salad with Marshmallow Whip was one of the recipes they introduced. With Marshmallow Whip as a prominent ingredient, the line between fruit salad and dessert blurred.
Originally marshmallow was a sticky sweet substance -- hard to handle. However, shortly after the introduction of Marshmallow Whip, food industry innovators figured out how to make marshmallows in the cylinder shape we see today.
Now that marshmallows could be shaped individually with no stickiness … well the horizon was unlimited.
By the late 1920s ambrosia salad recipes routinely included marshmallows. The ambrosia salad recipe I inherited from the 1950s contains marshmallows.
What is in an Ambrosia Salad? What is Essential? What Can You Leave Out?
Let’s talk about 1950s ambrosia salad for a crowd. You know. The salad you remember from potlucks and family parties.
THE FRUITS: A classic ambrosia salad consists of canned mandarin oranges, pineapple, and maraschino cherries, along with fresh grapes.
Can you add other fruits? Or leave some out? Sure. Canned peaches or pears are a common addition. Or maybe you want to leave out the mandarin oranges. Do it.
Some people just use a couple of cans of fruit cocktail instead of cans of individual fruits. Not my style, but go for it if that suits your taste.
THE SWEET SURPRISE: Mini marshmallows are a must to make ambrosia salad for a crowd.
Use mini marshmallows, not the big s’mores size. I prefer white marshmallows, but if you like the fruit flavored Jet-Puffed FunMallows, go for them.
GIVE ME SOME CRUNCH: Coconut and walnuts lend a crunch to an otherwise soft fruit salad.
COCONUT: Classic ambrosia salad contains coconut. It is one ingredient used in the very first recipe.
Use unsweetened coconut because this salad is sweet enough already. Tone down the sweet a little.
If you use dry coconut, make sure it is in small shreds. Otherwise the texture will be disruptive.
When you use dried coconut, refrigeration before serving the salad takes on new importance.
When coconut sits with the sauce and fruit juices, it softens. Soft coconut gives a pleasant texture in the salad.
Canned coconut is another option. In fact, Chef James Beard proclaimed moist canned coconut the best product for ambrosia salad.
However, canned coconut is not easy to locate, so go with dried or fresh.
Want to add a coconut flavor twist? Toast the coconut. This works best with fresh shaved coconut or dry coconut before you process it.
But, if you hate coconut, leave it out. No one will fault you.
ARE YOU A NUT? Some people love nuts. Some can’t stand them. I am in the love-them category. However, if you use nuts in classic ambrosia salad, chop them in a food processor.
One problem with nuts in a salad is the nut size. They can be too big and have an overwhelming crunch when you bite into them.
Nuts should be subtle, in the background of your taste sensations. So process them to tidbits. Not powder … tidbits.
Walnuts are my #1 choice for ambrosia salad. However, pecans, almonds, or macadamia nuts are viable options.
Want to add a bit more flavor? Toast the nuts before you process them and throw them in the salad.
If you don’t have a food processor, chop them with a butcher’s knife. They might not be quite as even as nuts chopped in a food processor, but relax.
You are only bringing this dish to a family potluck and you know, sometimes these relatives annoy you. Let unevenly chopped nuts be your sweet passive aggressive revenge.
THE SAUCE: The “sauce” to pull it all together is sour cream, whipped cream (or Cool Whip), or a combination of both.
Sour cream alone can be a bit too tangy for the sweetened canned fruit.
On the other hand, Cool Whip is too sweet. Not to mention that Cool Whip is a tub of hydrogenated oil, high fructose corn syrup, emulsifiers, and chemicals. Basically a whole lot of what I don’t want to eat.
So what is the solution? I like to mix whipped cream -- cream that I have whipped myself -- with sour cream. Sweeten it a bit (if you want) and you’ve got a nice light and creamy sauce your fruit can swim in.
It takes less than 5 minutes to whip the cream and the results are amazing!
I love the consistency of sour cream and whipped cream combined.
If you want a healthier salad, use vanilla yogurt for the sauce.
Ingredients for Ambrosia Salad
- Mandarin oranges, well-drained
- Pineapple tidbits, well-drained
- Maraschino cherries, well-drained and halved
- Green seedless grapes, halved
- Mini marshmallows (white or fruit flavored FunMallows)
- Shredded, unsweetened coconut (toasted if you like)
- Chopped walnuts (toasted if you like)
- Heavy whipping cream
- Sour cream
- Granulated sugar (optional)
How to Make Ambrosia Salad Like a Pro
STEP 1: OPEN and DRAIN the cans of fruit. No need to rinse, but you do need to drain. If you have time, drain the fruit in a mesh colander for 30 minutes.
STEP 2: WASH the grapes and then CUT them in half.
STEP 3: REMOVE the maraschino cherry stems if they are still attached. CUT the cherries in half. Reserve a few whole ones to top the salad.
STEP 4: WHIP the cream with a hand mixer using a wire whip attachment.
STEP 5: MEASURE the sour cream. MIX the whipped cream into the sour cream.
STEP 6: SWEETEN with sugar (optional).
STEP 7: MIX the mini marshmallows, shredded coconut, and chopped nuts into the sour cream mixture.
STEP 8: STIR in the pineapple, grapes, and cherries.
STEP 9: Finally ADD the mandarin oranges and stir to combine. When you add the oranges last, they are less likely to break apart.
STEP 10: CHILL at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours before serving. This chilling blends the flavors, chills the fruit, and moistens the marshmallows and coconut.
STEP 11: SERVE cold with a maraschino cherry on top.
Now this is the classic ambrosia salad you remember from your childhood. Always stir before serving.
Ambrosia salad is best served on the day it was made, but overnight preparation is acceptable.
One problem with refrigerating the fruit salad overnight is the accumulation of juice in the bottom of the bowl.
If you plan to make the salad the day before, DRAIN THE FRUIT at least 30 minutes. Do NOT skip this step.
If juice accumulates after refrigeration, drain it. Then stir the salad. Add a bit more sour cream or whipped cream if the “sauce” has thinned overnight.
How to Make Ambrosia Salad for a Crowd
If you have a potluck or party, you will need enough ambrosia salad for a crowd. The classic 1950s ambrosia salad recipe makes about 5 cups or 10 servings.
If you need ambrosia salad for a crowd, I recommend tripling the recipe for 30 servings. A large mixing/serving bowl won’t hold more than that amount.
Crowd-Sized Ambrosia Salad Ingredients
- 3 (15 oz.) cans of Dole Mandarin oranges, well-drained
- 3 (20 oz.) cans Dole pineapple tidbits, well-drained
- 3 (16 oz.) jars of Regal maraschino cherries, well-drained with stems removed, (cut in half if desired)
- 3 cups of green grapes, washed and cut in half
- 4 ½ cups mini marshmallows (or Jet-Puffed FunMallows)
- 1 ½ cups unsweetened coconut, shredded
- 1 cup chopped walnuts (or pecans)
- 3 ¾ cups heavy whipping cream
- 1 ½ cups sour cream
- ¼ cup granulated sugar (optional)
Follow the same directions for making the classic ambrosia salad.
Can You Make Ambrosia Salad Ahead of Time?
One day -- up to 24 hours -- is the earliest I would recommend making ambrosia salad.
When any fruit salad sits in the refrigerator, juices accumulate in the bottom of the bowl. Especially if the fruit salad contains any sugar. This leads to a soggy salad. No thanks.
In addition, the sauce (whipped cream and sour cream) breaks down over time. This leaves you with a thin sauce, which isn’t necessarily bad. But it won’t be as thick and creamy as the 1950s ambrosia salad you are used to.
Drain the liquid from any salad refrigerated longer than 4 to 6 hours.
What to Serve Ambrosia Salad With
Ambrosia salad is a side dish, not a main dish. So what does it pair with?
- Barbecue. Any barbecue will benefit from having ambrosia salad as a side. It adds a sweet to the savory main meal.
- Chili. Don't limit ambrosia salad to summer barbecues. It is an excellent side dish for chicken chili.
Can You Freeze Ambrosia Salad?
All the fruits in ambrosia salad freeze and thaw just fine. The problem with freezing the salad is the sauce. The dairy sauce breaks down as it freezes.
If you freeze the salad, you must drain the juices and add more sauce after you thaw it.
Freeze leftovers if you are willing to drain the salad when it thaws.
However, I wouldn’t recommend freezing the salad and then serving it at a potluck.
Ok. Questions all answered? What are you waiting for? Grab those cans of fruit, marshmallows, and start mixing.
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Vintage 1950s Ambrosia Salad Recipe
Ambrosia Salad for a Crowd
- 3 15 oz. cans of Dole Mandarin oranges, well-drained
- 3 20 oz. cans Dole pineapple tidbits, well-drained
- 3 16 oz. jars of Regal maraschino cherries, well-drained with stems removed, (cut in half if desired)
- 3 cups of green grapes washed and cut in half
- 4 ½ cups mini marshmallows or Jet-Puffed FunMallows
- 1 ½ cups unsweetened coconut shredded
- 1 cup walnuts tidbits or use pecans
- 3 ¾ cups heavy whipping cream
- 1 ½ cups sour cream
- ¼ cup granulated sugar optional
Family-Size Ambrosia Salad
- 1 15 oz. can of Dole Mandarin oranges, well-drained
- 1 20 oz. can Dole pineapple tidbits, well-drained
- 1 16 oz. jar of Regal maraschino cherries, well-drained with stems removed, (cut in half if desired)
- 1 cup of green grapes washed and cut in half
- 1 ½ cups mini marshmallows or Jet-Puffed FunMallows
- ½ cup unsweetened coconut shredded
- ⅓ cup walnuts tidbits or use pecans
- 1 ¼ cups heavy whipping cream
- ½ cup sour cream
- 1-2 tablespoons granulated sugar optional
- OPEN and DRAIN the cans of fruit. No need to rinse, but you do need to drain. If you have time, drain the fruit in a strainer for 30 minutes.
- WASH the grapes and then CUT them in half.
- REMOVE the maraschino cherry stems if they are still attached. CUT the cherries in half. Reserve a few whole cherries to place on top of the salad.
- WHIP the heavy cream. Pour the heavy cream into a cold bowl and whip using a hand mixer with a wire whip attachment for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the cream is whipped to soft to medium peaks.
- MEASURE the sour cream. MIX the whipped cream into the sour cream.
- SWEETEN with sugar (optional).
- STIR the mini marshmallows, shredded coconut, and nut tidbits into the whipped cream/sour cream mixture.
- STIR in the pineapple, grapes, and cherries.
- ADD the mandarin oranges and stir to combine. When you add the oranges last, they are less likely to break apart.
- CHILL at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours before serving. This chilling blends the flavors, chills the fruit, and moistens the marshmallows and coconut.
- SERVE cold with a cherry on top.
Did you make this recipe? Tag @thetastytip on Instagram and hashtag it #thetastytip.
Looking for More Salads? Try These
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Turkey Salad with Tart Apple and Bleu Cheese: Fall salad, perfect use for leftover turkey. Mixed greens, roasted turkey, tart apple, caramelized pecans, and cranberries, topped with a fresh vinaigrette and bleu cheese.
There were no canned mandarin oranges in the '50s. You had to peel oranges, take the membrane off and cut them up. A real mess. Some people put in grapefruit segments too.
Tami Mack @ The Tasty Tip
Yes, preparing mandarin oranges was a pain. Thankfully we can buy them canned today! It is a lot easier now.
That’s not exactly true. I was born, bred and raised in New York City; 1951. I always loved Mandarin Oranges and my grandmother always had several cans of them in her pantry just for me. We used grapefruit segments as well. There were no mini-marshmallows back then. Nor did we use sour cream.
Tami Mack @ The Tasty Tip
It is always interesting to me how varieties of the same recipe exist in different areas of the United States. This recipe came from my husband's grandma who lived in Vernal, Utah. She made the ambrosia salad in the 1950s with sour cream only -- no whipped cream. And she added marshmallows. Perhaps she chopped large marshmallows. Her recipe card does not say. I slightly adapted her recipe to include whipped cream (which I think tastes better and other 1950s recipes include) and mini marshmallows (for convenience).