Breaking down this ambrosia fruit salad recipe begins with understanding the true origin of the word ambrosia.
The word “ambrosia” is Greek for “immortality.” In ancient Greek mythology, it was the name that was used for the magical food of the gods. Only the gods were allowed to eat it; in the stories, very rarely an extraordinarily beloved or heroic mortal human, like Hercules, would be given ambrosia, and its power could transform them into a god or goddess to live on Olympus with Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, and the other gods.
The modern ambrosia salad is maybe not actually a magical food that grants immortality to anyone who eats it, but the good news is that it is still absolutely delicious, and not at all forbidden to humans. In fact, really everybody should try making it at least once.
What is Ambrosia Salad?
To describe it simply, ambrosia salad is a sweet, fluffy mixture of fruit, dried coconut, marshmallows, and whipped cream or whipped topping. Yes, if you’ve never heard of it, it sounds a little strange. But that explanation really doesn’t do it justice. Ambrosia salad is an American classic. Its origin is a little uncertain, but recipes for various fruit salads named “ambrosia” have been around in the US since the 1800s.
It’s a mystery as well why it started to appear at every single potluck in the Southern US in the 1960s and 70s, but nobody who has tasted the ambrosia salad made by a parent or grandparent is ever going to complain. It was–and in many places remains–particularly popular at get-togethers for Easter, Christmas, and the 4th of July.
Recipes vary quite a lot, but a few ingredients are almost always present: at least one tropical fruit of some kind (most often canned pineapple), one or two other types of fruit, shredded coconut, and miniature marshmallows. It’s also rare that an ambrosia fruit salad recipe doesn’t include something sweet and creamy to bring it all together: sour cream, whipped cream, or whipped topping.
There are many versions and many opinions about what should go in an ambrosia salad and even disagreements as to whether it should be a part of the meal or the dessert.
(Yes, there are quite a few people who will argue that it belongs alongside lunch or dinner, even though it usually contains mini marshmallows. This is a very bold opinion. If you try this particular recipe, you should probablyconsider it a dessert).
If you want to try a very delicious, very retro dish that requires almost no effort, comes together in just a few minutes, looks wonderfully eye-catching and will be a guaranteed hit with just about anyone with a sweet tooth, give this ambrosia fruit salad recipe a try. This version is as close to the standard classic of holiday potlucks and church bake sales in the South as it gets—the traditional canned fruits, marshmallows, coconut, whipped topping, and sour cream for tanginess.
How to Make Ambrosia Fruit Salad
Tips & Tricks
Mix the ambrosia salad gently, and try to keep the mandarin orange slices whole.
Juice from canned fruit is delicious over ice or in a punch, so be sure to keep it when you drain the oranges and pineapple!
For an even creamier dish, replace the dairy with 1.5 cups of whipped cream or whipped topping and 1/2 cup of whipped cream cheese. Combine them thoroughly before adding them to the fruit.
For a lighter version, you can swap out the sour cream for plain Greek yogurt.
To make it lactose-free, replace the dairy with coconut cream.
Any fresh fruit you like can be added. Chopped apple, halved grapes, and sliced banana are very common. Apple and banana should be added right before serving to avoid browning, or tossed with a little bit of lemon juice.
Nuts such as pistachios, pecans or walnuts are commonly mixed in or sprinkled on top, and will add a nice crunch.
A little bit of cinnamon, nutmeg or cardamom can be lovely, but start with a very small amount and taste first. With a very sweet, light dish like this, a little bit of spice goes a long way, and you don’t want to overpower the other flavors.
Maraschino cherries are also included in many versions for their bright color, and they’ll give the dish an even more retro look. Add them on top right before serving so they don’t tint everything pink.
Almost every recipe includes dried coconut, it’s true. But almost all of them also acknowledge that dried coconut is very much a love-it-or-hate-it food, and also a common allergy. So it is fine to leave it out, or only sprinkle it on top to make it easy for people to avoid.
How long does Ambrosia Fruit Salad last in the refrigerator?
This ambrosia fruit salad recipe is actually best if you let it chill overnight. Refrigerated and sealed or covered with plastic wrap, it can keep up to three days.
It should be kept cool; keep in the fridge or cooler until right before serving, and return leftovers to the fridge. Too warm, and the sour cream and whipped topping will start to melt and separate.
This throwback ambrosia fruit salad recipe is so simple, quick, forgiving and inexpensive that you almost have to give it a try for a potluck, barbecue or a party. These days, it’s uncommon enough to be something special, and there’s also just something incredibly charming about a dish that isn’t trying to be modern or fancy.
Nothing fussy or elaborate—just simple, sweet, festive and perfectly American. Most people would never guess it, but canned fruit, whipped topping, and marshmallows really just works.