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What is a Fruit Cocktail?

By Micki Elizabeth
Updated May 16, 2024
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A fruit cocktail is a combination of fruits, fresh or preserved, that are sliced into small, bite-size pieces. The dish is also known as a fruit cup. Often, syrup is made to drizzle over the fruits for flavor and to prolong freshness. While the term cocktail usually refers to an alcoholic mixed drink, in this case, the term refers to a food served as a first-course appetizer, like a salad. In other instances, the dish is eaten as a dessert. The dish can be prepared at home and in restaurants, but it is also sold widely as a canned food.

By definition, a fruit cocktail may consist of any mixture of fruits one desires. Some government agencies, however, require manufactured canned fruit cocktail to contain specific fruits. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) stipulates that the dish must contain 30 percent to 50 percent peaches and 25 percent to 45 percent pears, making up the largest portions of the fruit cup. Six to 20 percent of the cocktail must be any type of seedless grape, six to 16 percent should be diced pineapple, and very few halved cherries round out the mixture. Many canned varieties throughout the world contain similar fruits in like amounts.

Fresh fruit cocktail can be made fairly simply at home by cutting up any type of fruit and serving it with or without syrup. If one wishes to preserve the dish and store it in cans or jars, however, care must be taken in the way the fruit is prepared. An ice bath may be prepared first by readying a bowl of crushed ice; water and ascorbic acid may also be used.

Some choose to dip whole pieces of fruit into boiling water for no more than two minutes. Then, the fruit may be chilled in the ice bath, allowing for easier skinning and cutting of the fruit. Various recipes for syrup are available, but most require the boiling of sugar, water, and other additions in a sauce pan until the sugar is totally dissolved and the syrup is clear. The syrup and fruit may then be combined into properly sealed containers and stored for months.

The exact origins of fruit cocktail are unknown. Many believe that the idea came about as a way to utilize leftover scraps in fruit processing plants that would otherwise be wasted. Both William Vere Cruess, a food scientist, and Herbert Gray, who worked for the Barron-Gray Packing Company, are credited with the term and manufacture of this food dish. Many companies now sell canned cocktails, and some have come to know it as “cafeteria food," as it is a cheap, common staple in schools and hospitals.

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Discussion Comments
By Reminiscence — On Mar 04, 2014

When I worked for a cafeteria-style restaurant chain, one of my duties was to create their signature brand of fruit cocktail. It wasn't quite like the kind of fruit cocktail you'd find in cans on the shelf. We used grapefruit, pineapples, maraschino cherries and other citrus fruits packed in their own juice in glass jars. I would pour out all of the jarred fruits into a large vat and then pour the mixture into new glass jars for storage.

I noticed it wasn't a very popular menu item, since the salad department would bring back most of the jars for credit. I finally tried some myself and understood why it wasn't selling well. The grapefruit juice overpowered just about every other flavor in the mix, and in my opinion made the entire fruit cocktail too bitter. This would be something to keep in mind with any homemade fruit cocktail recipe. Consider using only the juices or syrups which would mesh well together, and drain the other fruits before adding them to the mix.

By Cageybird — On Mar 03, 2014

I like canned fruit cocktail, but I wish sometimes the ratio of fruit pieces would change. I seemed to get a lot of pear chunks and very few cherries. I have discovered, however, that some major labels now offer a fruit cocktail blend with a much higher proportion of cherries. It pays to shop around if you like a particular kind of fruit cocktail mix.

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