9 Cracker Barrel Items That Are Made Fresh Daily And 3 That Are Not

When you think of Cracker Barrel, you probably imagine walls filled with vintage bric-a-brac, stores packed with farmhouse-inspired gifts, and, of course, hearty, homestyle eats, from buttery biscuits at breakfast to gravy-smothered country-fried steak at dinner. But how many of those homestyle eats are actually made fresh in the restaurant, and how much of the menu is simply frozen food microwaved, boiled, or baked before arriving at your table, taking only a few minutes to go from the freezer to your fork?

It's a valid question to ask. Many restaurants rely on frozen, dehydrated, from-a-mix, and otherwise not-so-fresh foods in order to deliver menu items quickly and more affordably. Diners benefit from the quick convenience and cheap prices, but they may not always find that the food is as scrumptious as it might be had it taken a little more time and cost a few more dollars. Luckily, it seems that most of Cracker Barrel's menu truly is fresh — nearly homemade — and only a handful of menu items come from a bag or freezer. Here's what you need to know.

Fresh: Mashed potatoes

Mashed potatoes are about as simple as it gets — all you need are potatoes, milk, butter, salt, and pepper, and you have mashed potatoes — but well-made mashed potatoes are a work of art. Thankfully, Cracker Barrel sees this and, as such, makes its mashed potatoes from scratch. Furthermore, Cracker Barrel specifies that employees aren't just making a giant vat of mashed potatoes in the morning or evening, keeping it warm, and then serving customers old potatoes throughout the day or the next day. Instead, they're making fresh homemade mashed potatoes consistently.

If you want to replicate Cracker Barrel's mashed potatoes at home, do note the restaurant uses margarine, not butter, in its recipe. While there are many myths about margarine as pertains to its nutritional value, you probably don't have to worry about the margarine in your Cracker Barrel mashed potatoes. The truth is that butter and margarine usually have around the same number of calories (100 per tablespoon), as well as the same amount of fat (11–12 grams per tablespoon). Additionally, while a dietitian told Women's Health that butter is better than margarine because margarine contains trans fat, the Mayo Clinic reports that trans fat in margarine is really only something to worry about if you're shopping outside of the United States; otherwise, margarine is usually made with unsaturated fats, which are better for your heart health.

Fresh: Brown gravy

Good news! Those fresh Cracker Barrel mashed potatoes you're eating? You can enjoy them with a side of equally fresh brown gravy, because Cracker Barrel also notes that its employees make the gravy that's served alongside its mashed potatoes and country-fried chicken fresh, all day, every day. While Cracker Barrel doesn't specify on its website which of the mashed potato-accompanying gravies are made fresh, it's safe to assume that the brown gravy, the traditional choice, is the freshest. While you can also order your mashed potatoes topped with Cracker Barrel's breakfast gravy, which it calls "sawmill gravy," that gravy's freshness is questionable, as we'll get to shortly.

It's impressive that Cracker Barrel makes its brown gravy fresh, considering how easy and convenient it would be to simply ship out gravy to stores in bags, ready for a quick turn in the microwave before serving. While making brown gravy from scratch requires few ingredients (just flour, butter, beef broth, salt, and pepper), it does still require standing over a stove making a roux, and then whisking in the broth until the consistency is just right for pouring over your mashed potatoes or country-fried chicken.

Fresh: Baked potatoes

Like mashed potatoes, baked potatoes are another side dish that would be easy to cook in a huge batch and then microwave as needed, or even to just microwave when cooking them the first time around, as baking a potato in the microwave takes just a few minutes and almost tastes like the authentic thing. However, a prior prep cook from Cracker Barrel told readers on Reddit that the baked potatoes at the restaurant are actually baked in the oven — with one caveat. The former employee did say that Cracker Barrel would nuke its potatoes if the restaurant was running low.

So if it's really important to you to get a fresh baked potato at Cracker Barrel, from the actual oven, aim to go out to the restaurant during the slower time of day. That means maybe don't go to Cracker Barrel on Thanksgiving, even if you might be tempted. According to the restaurant, Thanksgiving is its busiest day of the entire year and, in 2014, the brand expected to serve more than 1.4 million meals over the nine days surrounding the holiday. Perhaps stay at home and make your own baked potatoes instead?

Fresh: Salads

One would really hope that a restaurant salad is on the fresher side. After all, who wants to eat a salad made from non-fresh vegetables? However, restaurants can still cut corners with their salad freshness, shipping off pre-mixed bags of salad to their various locations. That's not the case at Cracker Barrel, though. An employee on Reddit reported that Cracker Barrel's salads all started with fresh heads of lettuce that had to be washed and torn for use, and that the only salad ingredients that were not fresh were the hard-boiled eggs, which came pre-cooked in a bucket.

Both Cracker Barrel's homestyle grilled chicken salad and homestyle fried chicken salad come with boiled eggs, so if you're not keen on eating days-old or even weeks-old eggs (while the U.S. Department of Agriculture says you can keep hard-boiled eggs in the fridge for up to a week, hardboiled eggs that you can buy in a bag, pre-boiled and pre-peeled, can last for a few months, which is likely the case for Cracker Barrel's hard-boiled eggs), consider asking the restaurant to leave the egg off, or order the house salad that comes topped with bacon, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, and croutons, instead.

Fresh: Roast beef

Depending on your location, you might not always find Cracker Barrel's slow-roasted roast beef on your menu, but if you do, you can rest easy knowing that this is yet another Cracker Barrel menu item that's made in-house, with employees slow-roasting the beef for somewhere between 14 and 18 hours. Cracker Barrel uses USDA Choice chuck roast for its roast beef dinners, a cut that comes from the shoulder portion of the cow, which is ideal for this kind of slow-roasting process, under low heat. It's a favorite for not just roasts, but also beef stews. 

This menu item is one of the many beloved Cracker Barrel favorites to spawn a plethora of copycat recipes, and food bloggers and home cooks seemed to have cracked the code behind the roast beef's flavor: soup. Many copycat recipes include either condensed beef and mushroom soup or French onion soup. Don't worry, though: If you do try to make Cracker Barrel's roast beef at home, you won't be chained to your oven for 18 hours — most copycat recipes are doable in under nine. If you have an Instant Pot, you can cook your roast even faster.

Fresh: Fried chicken

The fried chicken at Cracker Barrel is mostly fresh. Cracker Barrel's Sunday homestyle chicken, for example, is dipped and breaded by hand before frying, so it's not like it comes from a big bag of frozen, pre-breaded chicken pieces that just have to be thrown into a deep fryer. However, employees aren't assembling all this menu item's ingredients from scratch. They do use a pre-made dredge mix, which one previous line cook said was the equivalent of Bisquick biscuit mix. The former employee noted that they would soak the chicken in water, coat it in this mix, then dip it in buttermilk before returning it to the mix and deep frying.

It's worth considering that Cracker Barrel does have multiple types of fried chicken, though, and they're not all prepared the same. A Cracker Barrel server chimed in on Reddit, clarifying that the chicken-fried chicken patties are deep fried, while the southern-fried chicken and homestyle chicken are air-fried. Additionally,  the home-style chicken is boneless, whereas the southern-fried chicken is bone-in, and includes legs, breasts, thighs, and wings.

Fresh: Chicken pot pie

Similarly, Cracker Barrel's individual chicken pot pie recipe, which blends slow-cooked chicken, peas, carrots, celery, potatoes, and onions, also blends fresh and pre-made ingredients. For example, a Reddit user and prior prep cook at Cracker Barrel said the chicken pot pie sauce, which might normally be made similarly to a gravy with a roux base, is made with condensed cream of chicken soup. Another Reddit user who said they spent eight years working as a Cracker Barrel backup cook and making pot pies, said that the pot pies utilized the restaurant's leftover chicken tenders (boiled, not fried), frozen vegetables, and potatoes, assumingly fresh. They also said the sauce, in addition to containing condensed cream of chicken soup, also contained milk and sour cream. (Though it's worth noting that this user said this was all according to Cracker Barrel's old pot pie recipe; another user on the same thread said the recipe is still the same, but that Cracker Barrel changed its ingredient brands and suppliers due to pandemic-related supply chain issues.)

All that considered, though, while the chicken pot pie might not be made entirely from scratch, it is still made fresh, with all of the ingredients assembled by real people, on-site, as opposed to being taken from the packaging and popped into the oven, whole and frozen.

Fresh: Biscuits

Likewise, while Cracker Barrel employees might not be measuring out the individual ingredients necessary for the brand's famed biscuits, they are still making the biscuits daily from a mix, according to a Reddit user — and, as anyone who's ever made biscuits knows, there's a lot of work that goes into making this breakfast bread beyond just sifting together some flour and similar ingredients. Employees must still roll and cut each biscuit by hand before the biscuits are baked in the location's dedicated biscuit oven. Employees use specially designed rolling pins for this purpose, but the process is still individualized enough that each biscuit is different each time.

Even though the biscuits are from a mix, that hardly deters diners from devouring them. As of 2016, Cracker Barrel said that it served about 300 million biscuits annually, alongside 7 million servings of biscuit toppings and more than 1.6 million pounds of apple butter. One previous employee on Reddit said that the secret to what exactly makes the biscuits so tantalizing is simple: It's all about the lard. Supposedly, Cracker Barrel brushes the tops of its biscuits with salted lard, not butter. Lard is rendered pig fat, which can provide a slightly bacon-y flavor, while still giving you that shiny, buttery sheen that makes for more photogenic biscuits.

Fresh: Corn muffins

According to a Reddit user, Cracker Barrel's corn muffins are, like the restaurant's biscuits, also made from mixes — which should come as no surprise, given that Cracker Barrel actively sells its corn muffin mix, and even says that the mix uses the same recipe used in its kitchens. But the corn muffins are made fresh from this mix daily, and baked from the batter, not from frozen.

So, what's in the dry mix, which only requires you to add buttermilk, eggs, margarine, and bacon fat, before baking? It's a pretty basic recipe: just white cornmeal, sugar, flour, a leavening agent, and salt, which, when combined with the buttermilk, eggs, and fats, amounts to your average cornbread recipe. Given that the mix only eliminates a bit of measuring and sifting from the baking process, it does seem logical that Cracker Barrel would opt for a mix for its corn muffins — it saves the employees in the kitchen some steps without sacrificing any quality.

Not fresh: The hashbrown casserole

Cracker Barrel's hashbrown casserole is iconic, easily one of the chain's most notable menu items, and likely one of its most commonly replicated at home. If you're one of the many home cooks who've tried your hand at making Cracker Barrel's hashbrown casserole in your own kitchen, you know copying it requires a fair amount of highly processed ingredients, including condensed soups and frozen hashbrowns. And if you were hoping that Cracker Barrel had managed to do what home cooks cannot and somehow craft this heavenly casserole from scratch, we're sorry to disappoint you. Cracker Barrel uses many of the same ingredients you're using at home, including cans of creamy soup and frozen hash browns, according to a previous employee on Reddit. 

The Idaho Potato Commission does point out that it can be very difficult to achieve the hashbrown texture you get from frozen hashbrowns with fresh potatoes. Frozen hashbrown potatoes have been peeled, steamed twice, boiled, shredded, fried, and dried, before making their way to the bag — a process that's not exactly feasible in a restaurant setting. It makes sense, then, that Cracker Barrel would use frozen hashbrowns for the restaurant's casserole. It saves more time and money, while still ensuring the casserole has the great taste and texture that diners expect.

Not fresh: Sawmill gravy

While Cracker Barrel claims it makes its brown gravy from scratch daily, that's not the case for the chain's breakfast gravy or, as it calls it, sawmill gravy. (Sawmill gravy is the southern name, stemming from the dish's supposed sawmill origins; traditional sawmill gravy is made with cornmeal, bacon fat, and milk).

According to a Cracker Barrel line cook on Reddit, the gravy comes as a mix and all employees have to do is add milk and heat it — just like the kind that you might buy at the grocery store. Other users who commented on a Reddit post complaining about the gravy's flavor (described as similar to rancid bacon fat) noted that the gravy is sometimes found lacking simply because Cracker Barrel employees don't make it themselves, as well as the fact that it doesn't actually have any breakfast sausage in it. They also pointed out that the gravy mix comes frozen and Cracker Barrel adds 2% milk to the mix.

Not fresh: Mac 'n cheese

According to a long-time Cracker Barrel employee on Reddit, Cracker Barrel's macaroni and cheese is cobbled together in two steps. First, employees mix a pre-made cheese sauce with elbow macaroni. Then, they toss the mixture into the oven. It's that simple. 

The macaroni and cheese, while not an iconic nor a made-from-scratch-daily Cracker Barrel dish, is still a favorite with many, but, in recent history, Reddit users have noted that the recipe seems to have changed, with some wondering if the restaurant changed its manufactured cheese sauce supplier. Employees chimed in, though, and noted that the recipe and supplier are still the same, but that certain things in the kitchen can impact the dish's overall quality. For example, if the mac goes straight from oven to table, the sauce might be on the runny side. Additionally, since the cheese sauce comes frozen, employees have to thaw the sauce under hot water before use, and if the water and sauce accidentally mix, this can also inadvertently negatively impact the texture. (Think you can get around these issues by just buying a box of the Cracker Barrel-branded macaroni and cheese at the grocery store? Guess again. There's no relation between Cracker Barrel the restaurant and Cracker Barrel the cheese brand.