The prickly pear is an interesting fruit/plant. It’s a term used to describe the fruit of about a dozen species of flat-stemmed Opuntia cactus found all over the Saguaro Desert, where I live. They’re known as nopal in Spanish, sabra in Hebrew, and a specific species called the Indian Fig (O. ficus-indica) is the most commonly used variation for culinary usage. It lacks that magenta hue, however.
Opuntia is a perennial flowering succulent tree, and its fruit is filled with enough seeds to plant a forest. In fact, in places outside its native deserts, it’s often considered an invasive pest. But its fruit is widely known as prickly pear, Indian figs, barberry figs, and tuna.
Prickly pears cacti are very efficient at turning water into biomass, and both the fruits and leaves (called Nopalito) are eaten. The fruit is a personal favorite of mine, with a flavor in the range of a raspberry, pomegranate, and watermelon. It also has one of the highest concentrations of vitamin C in any fruit.
I love making fresh prickly pear juice every season, and we’re coming up on that perfectly ripe season in August. So if you live in the southwest and want to try your hand at harvesting your own prickly pears, here’s how to go about it.
Supplies for Prickly Pear Picking:
Leather work gloves
A hard-sided container
Prickly pears are relatively easy to pick, so long as you know what you’re doing. The first thing you need is protection. Be sure to wear clothing that will protect you from any spines, and it’s not just the spines that’ll get you. Those soft, fuzzy dots (called glochids) are actually the most dangerous part of this plant.
Instead of touching them directly, you’ll want to grab them with a pair of thongs while wearing some workman’s gloves. I wouldn’t recommend the gloves by themselves, as I’ve still managed to get pricked a few times.
Also, as you go along, you’ll notice many of the cacti have a white coating on them. This is a sign of a female cochineal living and feeding on it. Don’t pick any fruits with the white coating. It’s not bird poop (which you also shouldn’t want to eat) – it’s a secretion that protects a bug that’s likely still present (dead or alive) underneath.
And as you can see from the pic above, the fruit are not ripe yet. You want to look for prickly pears that have a bright magenta glow to them. This typically occurs at some point in August, which is the ideal time for you go to picking prickly pears in the wild.
Each fan will have up to a dozen pears on it, so once you find some you like, take about half from each fan. This is done by grabbing gently with the tongs and twisting. If the fruit is ripe (somewhat soft to the touch, with a bright hue), it’ll come right off with a quarter twist.
Do this as many times as you can reach without falling into the cactus. And be sure to leave enough on each fan for the local wildlife and the plant’s growth cycle to continue.
Preparing Prickly Pears
Once you have them, you need to get rid of the danger. There are three ways to do this, and my favorite is with a butane or propane torch. Some people will torch the cactus before even picking the fruit. I wouldn’t recommend that unless it’s your cactus.
Be sure to spend time specifically on all the glochids (the white, fuzzy dots with arrows pointing to them in the pic above). You do not want to swallow these. Once you’re done, your prickly pears will look like the pic on the right.
The glochids can also be removed by boiling (see below), freezing, or simply juicing and straining through t-shirt cloth. I wouldn’t recommend cheese cloth, as some may get through.
At this point, you can store them in the fridge or on the counter for up to a week to let them ripen/sweeten further.
Next, it’s time to process them, which can be done in one of three ways: blending, juicing, or boiling.
Processing Picked Prickly Pears
Even though the spines are already burned off, I don’t like to take chances, so I boil my prickly pears. This softens the spines and turns them into pulp-like hairs. After about an hour, I’ll strain the juice through a cloth-lined strainer.
Some people will simply juice them in a juicer or throw them in the blender. Be sure to strain and/or freeze to remove glochids if you’re not boiling the juice.
What’s left after boiling off and straining is all the hard seeds and skin, which you can dump out near the cactus you harvested from to help contribute to the growth cycle.
Now that you have the juice, you can do several things with it.
Prickly Pear Recipes
Prickly Pear Syrup
1 cup Prickly Pear Juice (see above)
2 tbsp Lime Juice
1 cup Water
1/2 cup Sugar/Honey/Agave (to taste)
Mix everything together in a medium pot on your stove top on Medium High. Bring to Boil, then lower heat to Medium. Allow to simmer for at least 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour in a jar and chill for an hour.
Prickly Pear Margarita
1 cup Prickly Pear Syrup (see above)
1 cup Simple Syrup (half sugar/half water)
1 cup Lime Juice
3 cups Tequila
Mix ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Pour in salt-rimmed margarita glass and garnish with a lime.
Prickly Pear Lemonade
1 cup Prickly Pear Syrup (see above)
1 cup Lemonade
I like to cheat with lemonade and buy Newman’s or Simply when it’s on sale then add my own blueberry, strawberry, or other flavorings. Did a prickly pear lemonade last summer and was impressed by the flavor. Also try it with cucumber juice, lime juice, or cranberry juice to add a new twist.
Prickly Pear Candy
1 cup Prickly Pear Juice (See above)
3 cups Applesauce
5 cups Sugar
6 tsp Pectin
Mix prickly pear juice and applesauce together in bowl. In saucepan, combine pectin with one cup of sugar. Stir in fruit puree and bring to a boil. Add remaining sugar and bring to a boil again. Stir until candy thermometer reads 225. Remove from heat, pour onto parchment paper-lined baking pan. Cool for an hour and sprinkle with sugar.