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Strawberry pretzel salad is a salty-sweet retro dessert

(Rey Lopez for The Washington Post/Food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)
Strawberry Pretzel Salad
Active time:20 mins
Total time:20 mins, plus at least 5 hours’ cooling and chilling
Servings:12 to 16
Active time:20 mins
Total time:20 mins, plus at least 5 hours’ cooling and chilling
Servings:12 to 16
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I didn’t grow up eating strawberry pretzel salad. I first encountered it at a friend-of-a-friend’s house some years ago while home in Chicago.

Initially, I was perplexed: This “salad” consisted of a pretzel crust, cream cheese filling, strawberries and Jell-O. Then I tasted it — and I was hooked after one bite. It’s salty, creamy and fruity, all at once. The dish has remained implanted in my memory ever since, and now I’m elated to share it with you.

The aspect that throws people off is the incongruity between the dish and what many consider a salad. But food historians and people above a certain age can recall the prominence that congealed salads had in America, particularly in the mid 20th century — and some of them, such as this one, are still enjoyed today.

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According to Farmers’ Almanac, the strawberry pretzel salad was introduced to the world in “The Joys of Jell-O,” first published by General Foods in 1963. While congealed salads have largely fallen out of the limelight since then, strawberry pretzel salad remains an iconic dish, particularly in the South and Midwest where, because of the low-effort it requires and the large number of servings recipes typically produce, it is popular at potlucks, holidays and other large gatherings.

I consider it a dessert, but others disagree: “It’s a sweet, but it’s not a dessert,” Andrew Spena wrote in Epicurious. “As my Memaw might explain, it’s just ‘a little bit of sugar on your plate at dinner.’ It sits right there on your Thanksgiving plate next to your mains, your collards, your mac & cheese, your mashed potatoes.”

Regardless of the categorization, this light, salty-sweet confection is a delight.

Strawberry pretzel salad is essentially a pretzel crust with a no-bake cheesecake filling topped with strawberries and fruit-flavored gelatin. More traditional recipes call for store-bought whipped topping to be mixed with the cream cheese for the filling, but whipping heavy cream in the same food processor used to crush the pretzels requires minimal additional effort. Vanilla extract is traditional for flavoring the filling, but my recipe developer brain couldn’t help but think about all of the other flavoring possibilities, a few of which I’ve listed below.

Fresh strawberries are great in this recipe — making it particularly suited for spring and summer — but you can use frozen, thawed and drained fruit, if necessary, or even try different fruit and gelatin combinations to make this your own.

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Make Ahead: The pretzel crust can be baked up to 1 day in advance. Let cool completely, cover and store at room temperature.

Storage: Refrigerate leftovers for up to 3 days.

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Ingredients

For the pretzel crust

  • 8 ounces (227 grams) pretzel sticks
  • 1/4 cup (50 grams) granulated sugar
  • 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks/170 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

For the cream cheese filling

  • 8 ounces (227 grams) cream cheese, preferably Philadelphia brand, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (may substitute with almond extract, Grand Marnier, kirschwasser or balsamic vinegar)
  • 2 cups (480 milliliters) cold heavy cream

For the strawberry topping

  • 2 (3-ounce/85-gram) boxes strawberry flavored gelatin, such as Jell-O brand
  • 2 cups (480 milliliters) boiling water
  • 1 pound (454 grams) fresh strawberries, hulled and thinly sliced

Step 1

Make the crust: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees.

In a food processor, pulse the pretzels and sugar until coarsely ground. Add the melted butter and pulse until combined. Transfer the pretzel mixture to a 9-by-13-inch baking pan and, using the bottom of a measuring cup, press into an even layer. Bake for about 10 minutes, until the crust is fragrant and just beginning to brown around the edges. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool slightly, about 20 minutes.


Step 2

Make the cream cheese filling: Clean out the food processor. Add the cream cheese, sugar and vanilla and process until smooth, about 5 seconds. Add the heavy cream, pulse a few times and then process until thickened, about 30 seconds. Do not over process. Spread the cream cheese mixture evenly over the cooled crust, making sure to go all the way to the edges of the pan to completely cover the pretzels. Refrigerate until set, 30 minutes to 1 hour.


Step 3

Make the strawberry topping: While the cream cheese is setting, place the strawberry gelatin in a large liquid measuring cup or a medium bowl. Add the boiling water and whisk until the gelatin is dissolved. Refrigerate, uncovered, until it cools to at least 70 degrees, about 30 minutes. (It may start to thicken slightly, but do not let it fully set.)


Step 4

Assemble the dessert: Scatter the sliced strawberries over the cream cheese filling and pour the strawberry gelatin over them. Refrigerate uncovered until firmly set, at least 4 hours and up to overnight. Cut into rectangles and serve chilled.


Nutrition Information

Per serving (one 2-by-3-inch slice), based on 16

Calories: 333; Total Fat: 25 g; Saturated Fat: 15 g; Cholesterol: 79 mg; Sodium: 257 mg; Carbohydrates: 26 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugar: 13 g; Protein: 3 g

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.


Recipe from staff writer Aaron Hutcherson.

Tested by Aaron Hutcherson; email questions to voraciously@washpost.com.

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