Why Congealed Salad is a Southern Essential

Gelatin salads bring back memories of supper at Grandma's.

Congealed Salad
Hector Sanchez

Some of us believe that a celebration table, no matter how full, is lacking when there is no congealed salad. A cool little number with a come-hither jiggle can be appealing, so we don’t understand those who poke fun at our beloved congealed creations, even when we call them salads and serve them as a side dish.

We are not alone; nine boxes of flavored gelatin are sold every second in the United States. That mind-boggling number confirms what many of us have suspected all along: A whole lot of folks embrace congealed creations with gusto, even if they are unwilling to admit it. Congealed salads suffer the slings and arrows from many naysayers, but even those folks can succumb to a little sentiment around the holidays. Perhaps it’s the bemused recollection of a beloved grandmother, aunt, or other family member who prepared a quirky signature creation each year. It makes us smile, and perhaps shake our heads, to recall Nana’s pride when she turned a jiggling jewel-toned creation out of the mold and trotted it into the dining room.

A review of family recipe cards and community cookbooks confirms that there was practically nothing that a cook could not congeal with a little determination and an overactive imagination. For better and for worse, cooks have congealed salads, soups, side dishes, and entrées with abandon. When gelatin recipes turn out well, it is easy to see why busy cooks like them. They are easy, nostalgic, pretty, refreshing, and open to endless customization through the addition of extra ingredients.

Because it can be difficult to unmold the congealed salad, there are several tips we have discovered over the years. First, lightly mist the inside of the mold with vegetable cooking spray before filling. Be sure the gelatin is firm before unmolding. It should spring back and jiggle when you gently press the top with your finger. And, before unmolding, carefully run a thin knife blade around the outer edge. You can also dip the bottom of the mold in warm water for about 15 seconds before unmolding. If salad sticks on the first try, dip in warm water again for about 5 seconds. Alternatively, wrap the outside of the mold in a warm, damp towel for 1 to 2 minutes.

To serve the salad on a platter, moisten the platter with a little water to help gelatin adhere to the surface and stay put. To serve it on crisp lettuce leaves, turn the leaves face down on top of the mold, top with the platter, and invert. If a small piece breaks while transferring it, put it back in place and use a drop of water to seal the edges. If you have a major mishap, cut the entire salad and serve it in a large bowl. We doubt you’ll have leftovers, but if you do, spoon into parfait glasses with a mixture of cream cheese and whipped cream.

Get recipes for our most popular salads and 16 fresh fruit salads.