Vegan Strawberry Pretzel Salad is a dairy-free, gelatin-free take on the much beloved potluck and holiday dish. This version uses agar agar and real strawberries to make vegan "jell-o." Underneath is a layer of sweet and fluffy cream cheese, followed by a crunchy, buttery pretzel crust.
If you've had strawberry pretzel salad before, you already know what a delicious yet unlikely combination it is. And if you've never heard of it? You're in for a treat!
First, a little warning for all of you healthy eaters out there.....
Don't let the "salad" part of the name fool you. This is a seriously decadent dessert. Think of it like cheesecake topped with strawberries but with a sweet and salty pretzel crust instead of a graham cracker crust.
Before I show you how to make Vegan Strawberry Pretzel Salad, can I tell you a secret? This was a tough one. This project has been about a year in the making. After multiple trials last summer, and pounds and pounds of strawberries, I got so frustrated I had to step away from it for a while.
Like six months of NOPE. I don't even want to THINK about pretzel salad.
With strawberry season approaching, I knew I needed to pick myself up and try, try again. And this time? Nailed it! WOOHOO!
The Origin of Strawberry Pretzel Salad
If you're not familiar with strawberry pretzel salad, it's a very popular dish in the Southern United States (and I'm guessing other areas, too). A mainstay of potlucks and summer cookouts, it's also a traditional holiday dish for many families. According to various websites, pretzel salad was born in the 1960s in a cookbook called The Joys of Jell-O.
And yes, the combination seems strange at first. But once you taste pretzel salad, you quickly understand why it became such a hit. Imagine this - sweet and tangy cream cheese + crunchy, sweet, and salty pretzels + fresh strawberries suspended in jell-o? It's a total onslaught of complementary flavors and textures.
Anyway, after decades of everyone getting along just fine (in person), the internet introduced legions of new folks to this bizarre-sounding recipe. And some people just couldn't get over the name "salad." But when we remember its origin, a time when housewives were cooking up all sorts of ridiculous, gelatinous dishes, it makes a bit more sense.
But apparently even Jell-O decided to change with the times (Well, barely. I mean, they still make their products from animal parts. But I digress!). Their website now calls the original recipe "Strawberry Pretzel Squares."
The Trials of Creating a Vegan Version
In February 2019 I was working on a recipe for the Living Jin Agar Agar Cookbook. I scoured the internet and was shocked that I couldn't find a vegan version of strawberry pretzel salad (soon I would understand why).
So I created a recipe for mini individual ones. That recipe got picked up by Mother Earth Living magazine (see it here). I used agar in the middle layer of those individual pretzel salads, and it worked well, especially since the purpose of the recipe was to highlight agar for the Living Jin recipe competition.
But I really wanted to create a version for the blog that would mimic the iconic red and white dessert in the big glass Pyrex dish. And it was very important to me that it have a creamy and fluffy middle layer, which meant no agar.
What makes this tricky is the layering. See, agar sets somewhat quickly, more quickly than gelatin, which means that after bringing the strawberry mixture to a boil you need to pour it onto the cream cheese layer while it's still pretty darn HOT. Maybe you see where this is headed....
When the middle layer contained agar, the layering worked fine because you're pouring agar onto set agar. BUT with a middle layer made up of vegan cream cheese and coconut cream....
Hot liquid poured onto fat creates a hazy, not-very-attractive vegan jell-o. Totally unacceptable! I wanted our vegan jell-o to be as clear and gorgeous as possible.
Last Thanksgiving at my aunt and uncle's house in Nashville, I was telling everyone about my agar/cream cheese problem. I should add, none of them are vegan, and they're all huge pretzel salad fans! (My aunt is a pretzel salad pro, just like Grandmama.) That's when my cousin, a professional cook, suggested freezing the cream cheese layer.
My immediate thought was, "Of course! Why didn't I think of that?" For some reason I was trying to rush things.
I was chilling the cream cheese layer in the fridge but hadn't thought to semi-freeze it before pouring on the agar layer.
Another thing I realized during the final two test batches is that you can actually allow the agar to cool more than I previously thought (just keep whisking). So when you combine a somewhat cooler strawberry layer with a super cold cream cheese layer, problem solved!
How to Make Vegan Strawberry Pretzel Salad
My main goal is for you to have success the very first time you make this dish! So here are step-by-step photos to give you a good overview of the process.
When you're ready to make pretzel salad, be sure to scroll down to the full recipe card.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Crush the pretzels in a food processor. You can also put them in a large gallon bag and crush with a rolling pin, but I find the food processor to be easier. Add sugar and melted vegan butter, and pulse to combine.
- Next, press the pretzel mixture into a 13x9 casserole dish, and bake for 8 to 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.
- Cream together vegan cream cheese, coconut cream, and powdered sugar.
- Spoon cream cheese mixture onto the pretzel crust, and MAKE SURE to spread it all the way to the edges. This prevents the jell-o layer from seeping down onto the pretzel crust and making it soggy.
- The photo above-left is to re-emphasize the importance of spreading the cream cheese ALL the way to the edges. Place the dish in the freezer for 1.5 to 2 hours.
- While the cream cheese layer gets nice and cold, start on the strawberry agar/jell-o (below). A few minutes before you're ready to pour the agar layer onto the semi-frozen cream cheese, place freshly sliced strawberries evenly around the dish (above-right). Pop it back into the freezer. This allows the strawberries to get cold, too, providing an extra barrier between the hot agar and the cream cheese. You can also use frozen strawberries here, but for the suspended strawberries I usually use fresh. They're easier to slice and usually prettier than frozen berries.
How to Make Vegan Jell-o (using Agar Agar)
There are a few steps involved in making strawberry agar, but it's really easy!
- First you make "strawberry juice" by simmering fresh or frozen strawberries in water.
- In the middle photo above you can see that the color has transferred from the berries to the water, creating an all natural, beautiful, red juice. No artificial colors here!
- Strain the juice twice to remove any bits of strawberry.
- At this point, you want the cream cheese layer to have been in the freezer for about an hour-and-a-half. If the cream cheese isn't firm/cold yet, just set the strawberry juice aside and wait.
- Once the cream cheese is firm, you're ready for the final step in making agar. Dissolve the agar and sugar in water, then bring it to a boil. Agar only needs to simmer for about 1 minute to activate.
- Remove from heat and whisk in the strained strawberry juice. Continue whisking occasionally while the liquid cools, about 15 minutes.
- When the agar feels warm to the touch but has not yet started to set, pull the casserole dish from the freezer. Slowly pour agar onto the strawberries, moving around the dish so that the agar layer will be even. It will begin to set almost instantly upon contact with the cold berries and cream cheese.
This stage requires a bit of patience. As you're whisking the agar while it cools, just keep an eye on it. If you see signs of it beginning to set (like really set), you'll need to pour it into the casserole dish ASAP.
Tips and Storage
- On day 2 the pretzel crust isn't quite as crunchy as day 1. So it's best to prepare pretzel salad in the morning, for serving later the same day.
- Considering prep, freeze, and chill time, be sure to allow at least 5 hours total before serving.
- Though I haven't tested it, you can probably substitute Simply Delish strawberry jel for the jell-o layer. Here it is put to use it in my favorite Vegan Strawberry Cake! You need 3.5 to 4 cups of jell-o, which would be about 3 boxes of Simply Delish.
- If you prefer a thicker pretzel crust, increase the crust ingredients by 50%.
- Don't be tempted to reduce the amount of butter in the crust. It holds the crust together and keeps the pretzels crisp.
If you grew up enjoying Strawberry Pretzel Salad on special occasions like I did, I hope it will warm your heart to have a vegan version to share with friends and family! If you try the recipe please let me know in the comments below.
Cheers to modern, vegan versions of childhood favorites because anything they can eat we can eat vegan.
More vegan desserts:
Ultimate Vegan Strawberry Cake
Vegan Salted Chocolate Pecan Pie
Healthy Vegan Pumpkin Pie
Vegan Trifle With French Toast
Chocolate Haupia Pie
The BEST Vegan Gluten-Free Pie Crust
Vegan Chocolate Cake With Raspberry Cream Cheese Frosting
Vegan Strawberry Pretzel Salad
For the crust:
- 8 ounces salted pretzels, small twists or sticks (about 2.5 cups)
- 3/4 cup vegan butter, melted
- 1/4 cup organic cane sugar
Cream cheese layer:
- 16 ounces vegan cream cheese, room temperature I recommend Miyoko's.
- 1 cup coconut cream Coconut cream can be found in some stores; or chill a (14 oz) can of full-fat coconut milk overnight; use ONLY the thick cream portion. Reserve liquid for another use.
- 1 1/4 cups organic powdered sugar, sifted
Strawberry vegan "jell-o" layer:
- 2 pounds fresh strawberries OR 1 lb. fresh and 1 lb. frozen, divided, ends trimmed
- 3 1/4 cups water, divided
- scant 1 cup organic cane sugar, divided
- 1 tablespoon agar powder
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F, and clear space in both the freezer and refrigerator for a 9x13 dish.
- Pulse the pretzels in a food processor until crumbled. Add melted butter and sugar, and pulse again to combine. Press into a 9x13-inch casserole dish, and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until golden. Set aside to cool.
- Using a handheld or stand mixer, cream together the cream cheese and coconut cream until smooth. Add sifted sugar, and beat until fully incorporated. Spread cream cheese mixture onto the cooled pretzel crust. Make sure to spread the cream cheese ALL the way to the edges, completely sealing off the pretzel layer.
- Place dish in the freezer for 1.5 to 2 hours or until the cream cheese is firm to the touch.
- After about an hour, begin making the strawberry layer. In a medium saucepan, combine 1 pound frozen (or fresh) strawberries with 2 3/4 cups water and 1/4 cup sugar. Bring to a simmer, and cook 8 to 10 minutes or until the strawberries have lost most of their color.
- Pour the strawberry water through a fine mesh sieve, capturing the liquid in a clean bowl. Rinse the sieve and strain the strawberry water one more time to ensure it's clear and free from particles. (The pale strawberries can be eaten or discarded.) You should have about 2 3/4 cups (22 ounces) of strawberry water (aka strawberry "juice").
- Slice the remaining pound of strawberries, and arrange them on top of the cold cream cheese layer. Return dish to freezer.
- Rinse the saucepan. Combine 1/2 cup water and agar in the pan. Whisk to dissolve the agar. Whisk in 2/3 cup sugar, and bring mixture to a boil. Whisking frequently, simmer for 30 seconds to 1 minute, then remove from heat. Immediately whisk the strawberry water/juice into the agar mixture. This will cool it down slightly. Continue whisking occasionally, allow the agar to cool until warm but not hot, about 15 minutes. Keep an eye on it! If the agar begins to set, pour it onto the strawberries immediately.
- When the agar feels lukewarm, remove dish from freezer and carefully pour the strawberry "jell-o" over the strawberries. It will begin to set almost instantly upon contact with the cold berries and cream cheese. Keep in mind, where you pour the agar is where it will stay, so move around the dish as you pour to keep the layer somewhat even.
- Even though the agar will appear set, refrigerate your strawberry masterpiece until completely chilled, about 2 hours. Serve with vegan whipped cream, if desired.