This Fresh Ambrosia Salad recipe features only the simplest ingredients: fresh oranges, pineapple, and coconut with a hint of sugar. Inspired by the original recipes for Ambrosia, popularized in the mid- and late-19th century, the recipe has a vibrant, but delicate flavor in which clouds of freshly grated coconut bring balance to sweet-tart citrus and pineapple.
What is it?
Ambrosia is a fruit salad that became popular in the 1860s and continues in its popularity today. The earliest recipes included fresh oranges and freshly grated coconut, while modern recipes favor canned fruit, non-dairy whipped topping, and miniature marshmallows.
Taking inspiration from the earliest versions of Ambrosia, this recipe relies on fresh fruit and freshly grated coconut - without a can, marshmallow, or tub of non-dairy topping. As a result, this salad is vibrant, fresh, and utterly delicate.
History of Ambrosia
You can find the first written record of Ambrosia in Maria Massey Barringer's cookbook Dixie Cookery, which was published in 1867. It combined only three ingredients: fresh coconut, oranges, and a small amount of sugar. While they seem commonplace today, these ingredients were relatively rare at the time. It was then, in the mid-19th century, that an increasingly globalized supply chain made these foods increasingly available to the American public.
Steamships brought brown coconuts from the tropics, while fresh citrus traveled by rail from California and Florida to more landlocked American kitchens. Combining them together meant that Ambrosia was a somewhat exotic dish reserved for special occasions.
A few decades later, cooks began to include chopped fresh pineapple in their Ambrosia recipes, often with a splash of rum, Madeira, or sherry to enliven the dessert. The essence remained true to the original in that it was a decisively fresh and light dish.
By the turn of the 20th century, cooks took greater license with the original recipe. Some recipes for fresh strawberries or bananas, but one addition seemed to really take hold: whipped cream. Folding billows of freshly whipped cream into the oranges and coconut gave Ambrosia a pleasant richness. In the 1920s cooks began to add marshmallows to the salad, as these little confections were enjoying somewhat of a trending moment at the time.
During World War II, the demand for canned food skyrocketed, and after the war ended manufacturers urged consumers to continue buying canned foods promising they were easier and saved more time than using fresh foods. As a result, canned mandarin oranges and canned pineapple replaced fresh fruit in Ambrosia. Later, with the invention of Cool Whip in the 1960s, non-dairy whipped topping replaced fresh cream making the modern version of Ambrosia an extreme departure from the original version which was delicate, simple, and, above all else, fresh.
Making a Fresh Ambrosia Salad is easy. The ingredients are simple, and there's no cooking; however, you do need to pay attention to technique - especially in preparing your oranges for the salad. Further, since you're relying on simple ingredients, pay attention to their quality, too.
- Use a sharp paring knife to cut the orange segments into supremes, freeing the flesh from both the rind and the membrane. This video from Le Cordon Bleu will show you how to segment an orange.
- Make sure your oranges are completely free from the white pith and any membranes, otherwise your Ambrosia maybe tough or have an unpleasant texture.
- Use fresh, brown coconut if you can as it has the best flavor and a very delicate fluffy texture. This video shows you how to open a coconut and remove its flesh.
- Don't skip the sugar. While it might be tempting to skip the sugar, it plays an important role in the salad. The sugar helps the fruit to release its juices which combine together to dress the salad and improve its flavor - a little goes a long way so you don't need to add much.
- Fresh Ambrosia is best the day you make it. The freshness is what really speaks, and it's best served the day you make it. It loses its vibrance when stored.
Fresh Ambrosia Salad Recipe
- 4 medium navel oranges
- 2 cups chopped fresh pineapple
- 2 cups finely grated fresh coconut (from 1 medium coconut)
- 2 tablespoons rum (optional)
- ¼ cup sugar
- Working one at a time and using a sharp paring knife, slice the bottom and top quarter inch off of the oranges. Set each orange firmly on your cutting board, and then slice away its peel and white pith, exposing the fruit’s flesh and taking care not to cut too deeply into the fruit.
- With the peel gone, hold the fruit firmly but gently, and slice the flesh away from the papery, transparent membrane. Discard the peel, pith, and membrane, and then place the remaining fruit into a large bowl.
- Add the pineapple to the bowl, and then fold in the grated coconut. Sprinkle with rum and sugar. With a gentle hand, fold the ingredients together until evenly distributed, and then tip the salad into a serving bowl or serve it in individual dishes.
- You can store ambrosia in a tightly covered container in the fridge for up to 3 days; however, it’s best consumed the day you make it.
Add whipped cream. Freshly whipped cream became a popular addition to Ambrosia in the early 20th century. By the late 1960s, non-dairy whipped topping replaced fresh cream in many recipes.
Swap dried coconut for fresh. Shredding fresh coconut is a tedious task that usually requires a coconut grater or other special equipment. You can substitute dried, unsweetened coconut flakes for fresh; however, you may wish to let the Ambrosia sit for up to 30 minutes before serving to allow the coconut to soften and rehydrate.
Skip the rum, and add a half teaspoon of almond extract, vanilla extract, or orange flower water to the ambrosia. While neither are traditional additions, they taste delicious when paired with coconut, pineapple, and orange.
Make the original version by using only oranges and freshly grated coconut sprinkled with a little sugar.
Made fresh, ambrosia salad is good for about three days; however, it's best eaten the same day that it's prepared.
Place any leftover ambrosia into a container with a tight-fitting lid, and then store it in the fridge for up to 3 days.
The earliest written reference to ambrosia is in the 1867 cookbook Dixie Cookery by Maria Massey Barringer.
Ambrosia is best eaten fresh on the day it was made, so while you can store it for up to 3 days, it's best to make it right before you plan to serve it.