Published Oct 09, 2023, Updated Oct 17, 2023
This post may include affiliate links. Thank you for your support.
Ambrosia salad is a classic recipe loaded with pineapple, mandarin oranges and coconut all tossed in a creamy, fluffy dressing with marshmallows. It’s the perfect side dish (or dessert) for potlucks and holiday meals!
While I didn’t grow up eating ambrosia salad, I was introduced to it the first time I had Thanksgiving dinner with my husband’s family. And as soon as I saw it being dished up I knew I was going to like it because it’s very similar to a salad I grew up eating called watergate salad.
And it’s funny because no one really knows why these fluffy fruit dishes are called salads, but perhaps it’s because they are cold dishes made by combining different ingredients and there’s usually a creamy dressing involved!
The version of the recipe I’m sharing today is inspired by my husband’s family recipe, the one that’s on our Thanksgiving table every year. Of course, in true EBF-fashion, I’m also giving a couple suggestions for how to make it tad healthier, if desired.
What is Ambrosia Salad?
Ambrosia salad is a classic Southern fruit “salad” but if you didn’t grow up in the south you might be wondering what the heck ambrosia salad is, so let me fill you in real fast.
This fruit salad originated in the South, but the name “ambrosia” comes from Greek and Roman mythology. It means “nectar of the gods” and was also associated with immortality. While this dish definitely can’t promise immortality it can promise divine flavor.
Ambrosia salad is typically made with canned pineapple, mandarin oranges, mini marshmallows, whipped cream, sour cream, coconut and cherries. I’ve also seen some variations made with cottage cheese, mayo, vanilla pudding, nuts and other varieties of fruit.
No matter the variation, the basis of ambrosia salad remains the same… it’s a creamy, sweet fruit salad. And the real question… is is a dessert? A snack? A side? We always served it as a side dish for the holidays, but I know a lot of people put it on their plate and then save it for last like a dessert!
Why You’ll Love This Recipe
- Easy to make: You only need 6 simple ingredients and less than 10 minutes of prep time to make this ambrosia salad. Love that!
- Family favorite: This is a classic recipe that has stood the test of time.
- Perfect for holidays: It’s a great dish to bring to potlucks or for holiday meals like Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving.
- Healthier options: With this version I’m giving you some healthier substitutions like using Greek yogurt instead of sour cream or whipped cream and cutting back on the sugar by using unsweetened shredded coconut.
Ingredients & Substitutions
- pineapple – a must for ambrosia salad! Opt for either pineapple tidbits or crushed pineapple in the can with juice. Just don’t forget to drain it otherwise your salad will turn out watery. I haven’t tried making this salad with fresh or frozen pineapple but I’m sure it would work!
- mandarin oranges – another classic ingredient! Be sure they are packed in juice instead of syrup and drain them well to keep the texture of the salad just right.
- shredded coconut – you can choose between sweetened or unsweetened, based on your sweetness preference. I usually lean towards unsweetened shredded coconut to avoid making this dish too sugary. I really like this Bob’s Red Mill shredded coconut for the salad because it’s shredded into smaller pieces and softens up nicely as the salad sits.
- mini marshmallows – these add a fun, fluffy texture to the mix. You can stick to the classic white marshmallows or jazz things up with fruity-fun marshmallows for added color and flavor.
- Greek yogurt or sour cream – this is where the creaminess comes into play. The choice between Greek yogurt and sour cream depends on your preference for tanginess. Greek yogurt is a bit tangier and lighter, while sour cream offers a richer consistency. I personally love using plain Greek yogurt to amp up the protein a bit! If you’d like, you could add a flavored yogurt like vanilla yogurt to enhance the flavors of this salad.
- maraschino cherries – not just for looks, these add a burst of sweetness and make the salad pop visually. They’re perfect for topping and turning your dish into a festive treat.
How to Make Ambrosia Salad
Prep: Start by draining the canned fruit. This ensures your salad won’t be too watery.
Combine: In a large bowl, combine the pineapple tidbits, mandarin oranges, shredded coconut, mini marshmallows and your choice of Greek yogurt or sour cream. It’s important to fold the mixture gently. This keeps the fruit and marshmallows intact and ensures everything is evenly coated without becoming mushy.
Chill: Once mixed, cover the bowl and place it in the refrigerator to chill for at least 1-2 hours. This step is crucial as it lets the flavors meld and helps soften the coconut.
Serve: When you’re ready to serve, take the bowl out and give it a quick stir. Garnish your salad with maraschino cherries and an extra sprinkle of shredded coconut to make it look pretty.
Every household seems to have its own unique twist on ambrosia salad. Like I mentioned, the recipe I’m sharing today is based on a family recipe recipe and I love it as is, but feel free to make this recipe your own! Here are some ideas:
- Use different fruit: Want to add in different fruit? Go for it! Grapes, bananas and strawberries are other common fruits that you might see in ambrosia salad.
- Add some crunch: For some added crunch and flavor, mix in about ⅓ cup of chopped walnuts, pecans or toasted almonds.
- Add whipped topping: Add a dollop of whipped cream or cool whip to give the dressing a creamier, fluffier consistency. I like more natural versions like Tru Whip or Cocowhip.
- Add cottage cheese: As an alternative to yogurt or sour cream, cottage cheese offers a unique texture and protein boost.
- Pudding: Adding a packet of vanilla or coconut-flavored instant pudding (just the powder) can give the salad a richer taste and creamier texture.
- Don’t forget to drain your fruit: Don’t skip this otherwise your salad will turn out watery.
- Mix gently: When mixing everything together make sure to fold the mixture gently to ensure that the fruit and marshmallows stay in tact and don’t become mushy.
- Be patient: I know it might be hard, but make sure you let this salad chill for at least 1-2 hours to let the salad set and the flavors meld together.
How to Store
Leftover ambrosia salad should be covered and kept in the fridge for 3-4 days.
Because this salad needs to chill in the fridge for a bit before serving, it’s a great make-ahead dish to serve at potlucks, parties and for the holidays! You can even make it the night before you plan to serve it. Just follow the recipe, store it in your fridge and take it out when you’re ready to serve.
More Salad Recipes to Try
- Waldorf Salad
- Easy Fruit Salad
- Healthy Watergate Salad
- Creamy Grape Salad
- Strawberry Pretzel Salad
- Cottage Cheese Salad
- Easy Cucumber Salad
- Shrimp Salad
Be sure to check out all of the salad recipes here on EBF!
- 1 20 oz can crushed pineapple or pineapple tid-bits (in juice), drained
- 1 10-15 oz can mandarin oranges (in juice), drained
- 1 cup sweetened or unsweetened shredded coconut, I used unsweetened
- 1 cup mini marshmallows, can use fruity-fun marshmallows for added color
- 1 cup full fat plain Greek yogurt or sour cream
- 1-4 maraschino cherries, for topping
- In a large mixing bowl, add the drained pineapple, drained mandarin oranges, shredded coconut, mini marshmallows and Greek yogurt (or sour cream).
- Gently fold all the ingredients together until the fruit and marshmallows are evenly coated.
- Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 1-2 hours before serving. This chilling time allows the flavors to meld together.
- Just before serving, you can garnish with a few maraschino cherries and a sprinkle of shredded coconut if you like.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.