How To Make Strawberry Pretzel Salad: A Retro Southern Dessert That Stands the Test of Time

updated May 29, 2020
summer
How to Make Easy, Old-Fashioned Strawberry Pretzel Salad

This retro Southern summertime favorite with a buttery pretzel crust, a cream cheese filling, and a strawberry Jell-O topping is one of the easiest and most refreshing fresh fruit desserts.

Serves12

Prep30 minutes

Cook12 minutes

Jump to Recipe
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slice of strawberry pretzel salad on plate
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

There are a lot of desserts that call themselves salads — the cookie salad, the ambrosia salad, the candy bar apple salad — but strawberry pretzel salad is the queen of them all. The retro Southern summertime favorite is one of the easiest, prettiest, and most refreshing fresh fruit desserts around.

The crust is made from crushed salted pretzels to balance the sweet. The creamy filling is reminiscent of a no-bake cheesecake. The topping is a heaping quart of sliced fresh strawberries mixed with just enough strawberry Jell-O to hold them in place and make them shine. This is no jiggly Jell-O mold filled with odd bits; strawberry pretzel salad is just as delicious and fun today as when cooks started making it in the 1970s.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

The History of the Strawberry Pretzel Salad

Yes, it’s a dessert, and yet it’s called a salad, which is the way of many vintage recipes that call for a little (or a lot) of Jell-O. Many culinary historians think it started way back in 1904 when Mrs. John E. Cook of New Castle, Pennsylvania, won third prize (a new sewing machine!) for her perfection salad — a congealed raw vegetable number — in a recipe contest. Fannie Farmer was one of the judges. The term salad seems to have stuck, even when a misnomer.

I grew up eating strawberry pretzel salad in North Carolina. It was a specialty of my best friend’s mom whose cooking was otherwise not special at all, a real treat when we giggling middle-schoolers gathered for Friday night slumber parties. Word about this family-friendly recipe got around quickly, and soon dishes of strawberry pretzel salad started showing up on supper tables and at family reunions, potlucks, and cookouts all over town. Cooks couldn’t resist saying “You’ll never guess what’s in it!” (in a good way), which remains a great teaser when introducing it to those who are new to this delightful recipe.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

The Best Ingredients for Strawberry Pretzel Salad (Including Fresh Berries!)

There are three layers to a strawberry-pretzel salad: the pretzel crust, the cream cheese filling, and the strawberry topping. Over the years, I’ve made a few upgrades to the classic, while still staying true to what those of us who grew up eating it love and crave.

The crust is a simple mixture of pretzels, butter, sugar, and salt. Salted or unsalted butter works, so use what you have, but salted enhances its savory edge. Using pretzels instead of the usual graham cracker crumbs was a real aha moment back when few home cooks thought of using a little salt to balance a sweet dish.

The filling is a mix of cream cheese, sugar, heavy cream, and vanilla. Although most traditional versions of this recipe call for an 8-ounce tub of thawed Cool Whip, using real cream instead is a smart update — the cream cheese stabilizes and stiffens the whipped cream in the filling so that the dessert still cuts neatly. Plus, it cuts down on the sweetness, and I like the way it tastes with the fresh berries.

The topping involves strawberry Jell-O and fresh strawberries. Most versions of this recipe call for 2 cups of thawed frozen strawberries in syrup, but I prefer to use fresh berries and double them to improve the ratio of berries to Jell-O. And speaking of Jell-O, it’s the way to go here. I’ve tried making congealed recipes with the vegan versions found in health food stores and it won’t set firmly enough.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

Assembling and Serving Strawberry Pretzel Salad

This is an easy recipe, but taking the time to let each layer cool or set completely makes a lot of difference in how it turns out. For the neatest slices, spread the filling all the way to the edges of the pan so that the Jell-O won’t seep down the sides and turn the crust soggy, and chill the Jell-O until it reaches the consistency of uncooked egg white before folding in the fruit. It gives a better set and doesn’t wilt the fresh strawberries.

Strawberry pretzel salad can be made one day in advance and chilled in the fridge until ready to serve. Serve cold slices to happy family members all summer long.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell
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Here's how to make the best strawberry pretzel salad.

How to Make Easy, Old-Fashioned Strawberry Pretzel Salad

This retro Southern summertime favorite with a buttery pretzel crust, a cream cheese filling, and a strawberry Jell-O topping is one of the easiest and most refreshing fresh fruit desserts.

Prep time 30 minutes

Cook time 12 minutes

Serves 12

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

For the crust:

  • 6 tablespoons

    unsalted butter

  • 2 cups

    finely crushed salted pretzels (about 7 ounces)

  • 3 tablespoons

    granulated sugar

  • 1/8 teaspoon

    kosher salt

For the cream cheese filling:

  • 8 ounces

    cream cheese

  • 1 cup

    granulated sugar

  • 2 cups

    cold heavy cream

  • 1 teaspoon

    vanilla extract

For the strawberry topping:

  • 2 (3-ounce) boxes

    strawberry Jell-O (not sugar free)

  • 2 cups

    boiling water

  • 4 cups

    sliced fresh strawberries

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 400°F. Let 8 ounces cream cheese sit out at room temperature to soften.

  2. Melt the butter. Place 6 tablespoons unsalted butter in a medium microwave-safe bowl. Microwave in 15-second bursts until melted. (Alternatively, melt the butter on the stovetop and pour into a medium bowl.)

  3. Make the crust. Add 2 cups finely crushed pretzels, 3 tablespoons granulated sugar, and 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt, and stir until evenly moistened and combined.

  4. Press into a baking pan. Transfer the mixture into a 9x13-inch baking pan and press into an even layer on the bottom.

  5. Bake the crust. Bake until fragrant, 8 to 10 minutes. Place the pan on a wire rack and let cool completely.

  6. Whip the cream cheese. Place the softened cream cheese in a large bowl and beat with an electric hand mixer on high speed until smooth. (Alternatively, beat in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment.)

  7. Beat in the heavy cream and vanilla. Add 2 cups cold heavy cream and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and beat until stiff peaks form.

  8. Spread over the crust. Transfer the mixture onto the cooled crust. Spread into an even layer, making sure to spread it all the way to the edges so that the topping will not seep down the sides of the pan and turn the crust soggy.

  9. Refrigerate until chilled. Cover and refrigerate until chilled, at least 1 hour.

  10. Make the strawberry topping. Place 2 boxes strawberry Jell-O in a large bowl. Add 2 cups boiling water and whisk until the Jell-O is dissolved.

  11. Refrigerate until starting to set. Refrigerate uncovered until it thickens to the consistency of uncooked egg white, about 30 minutes.

  12. Add the strawberries. Add 4 cups sliced strawberries to the Jell-O mixture and stir to combine.

  13. Spread over the filling. Transfer the strawberry topping to the baking pan and spread into an even layer over the cream cheese filling.

  14. Refrigerate until set. Refrigerate uncovered until firmly set, at least 4 hours. Serve chilled.

Recipe Notes

Make ahead: This can be made up to 1 day ahead.

Storage: Store covered and refrigerated up to 3 days.