How to Cut and Prepare Prickly Pears
How do you cut and prepare prickly pear? Carefully. Here’s a step-by-step guide to cutting and using delicious cactus pear with photos and recipe suggestions.
Garrett has been writing about food and sharing recipes for 15 years. He is the author of Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese.
Please welcome Garrett McCord as he shows us how to cut up a prickly pear. ~Elise
What Is Prickly Pear Fruit?
Known to few, the fruit of the nopales cactus (cacti with beaver tail-like paddles), are actually quite edible. Called prickly pears, these neon fruits provide delicious juice that tastes like a cross between all-natural bubble gum (if indeed there is such a thing) and watermelon.
How to Use Prickly Pear
Prickly pear juice is often used to make jam or candy, but works wonders in cocktails and used in vinaigrettes for salads.
I’ve used the juice from prickly pear to flavor cream cheese frosting for a lime flavored cupcake, and have seen others boil cactus pear down with a bit of orange and lemon juice to make a sauce for fruit salads and cheesecakes.
Where to Get Prickly Pear
Many Mexican markets, farmers markets, and some natural food supermarkets carry prickly pear fruit, but you can find cactus pear growing in California, the Southwest, Mexico, and the Mediterranean.
Be warned though, while the prickly pear in markets have been cleaned of the tiny hair-like thorns, the ones fresh off the cactus are covered with them, so be sure to handle them with heavy leather work gloves and scrub them hard to ensure all the painful little barbs are off.
How to Grow Prickly Pear Cactus From Seeds
The prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.) thrives in hot, dry desert areas, growing 3 to 20 feet tall, depending on the variety and growing conditions. It spreads to cover 3 to 15 feet. The leaves and fruit are edible once the spines are removed. Leaf pads are eaten as a vegetable. Fruit are eaten raw and used to make juice, jelly and candy.
Depending on the species, prickly pear cactus is hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 3 through 9, advises Missouri Botanical Garden. Growing prickly pear from cactus seeds can be a slow process, but once established, prickly pear cactus are easy to care for and tolerate drought for two or three weeks.
1. Harvest Cactus Seeds
Harvest prickly pear cactus seeds from the ripe fruit of a prickly pear cactus. Prickly pear cactus earn their name. Wear gloves and handle the plants carefully; the spines are sharp and cause painful irritation, advises North Carolina State Cooperative Extension.
Wash the seeds to remove all pulp, and dry them on a paper towel in a warm place for a week or two until completely dry. Opuntia seeds need to ripen for a year or more before germination, notes North Carolina State Cooperative Extension. Store seeds in an air-tight container in a cool, dark place until ready to plant the following spring.
2. Prepare Planting Soil
Fill small pots or a seed tray with cactus soil. Break up any lumps in soil. Water the soil thoroughly and allow to drain.
3. Scratch the Cactus Seeds
Sow the seeds in the late spring when night temperatures consistently reach above 45 degrees. Rub the prickly pear cactus seeds against a piece of sandpaper to scratch the seed coat. Scratched seeds germinate faster and more reliably than untreated seeds.
4. Sow Opuntia Seeds
Plant one seed per pot or plant seeds 1 inch apart in seed trays. Press the seed into the soil and cover with a fine layer of soil, barely 1/8 inch thick.
5. Enclose or Cover Planted Seeds
Mist the soil surface with a fine spray of water. Cover the tray with the plastic lid or put individual pots in plastic bags, advises Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. Cut a small hole in the plastic to create a vent.
6. Check Moisture and Temperature
Place the pots or tray in a sunny window or under artificial lights. Check the soil daily for moisture and temperature. Ideal soil and air temperatures for prickly pear cactus is 70 degrees. If heat builds up under the plastic, move the container or open the vent further to release excess heat. Water the soil as needed with a fine mist, keeping the soil moist but not wet.
7. Monitor Seedlings
Inspect the seedlings daily. Cactus that turn yellow need more light. Brown or red cactus are receiving too much light.
8. Transplant Prickly Pears
Transplant the seedlings into larger pots or outside once the roots are well-developed. Place the transplants in full sun spaced 24 to 36 inches apart. Keep the soil moist for the first two weeks or until the plant has adjusted to its new location. Increase the time between watering once the cactus are established, allowing the soil to dry out slightly.
9. Fertilize Transplanted Cacti
Fertilize with a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10 to encourage pad growth. If you prefer to encourage flowers and fruit, use a low-nitrogen fertilizer such as 0-10-10.
Harvesting and Eating Prickly Pears
Chelsie Kenyon, author of “Knack Mexican Cooking,” is a former freelance writer and recipe developer with more than 10 years’ experience in Mexican cuisine.
Cactus and their fruits are a large part of Mexican cuisine. The wide, flat cactus pads (“nopales”) are used in many Mexican main dishes such as salads, eggs and as a filling for other dishes. The cactus fruit, sometimes called a “Prickly Pears” are very sweet and can be eaten raw, right off of the plant. Depending on the level of ripeness, they can range from slightly sweet to syrupy sweet.
Watch Now: How to Cut and Eat Prickly Pear
Identifying and Harvesting Cactus Fruit
Hernan Castillo / EyeEm / Getty Images
Cactus fruit grows on the edges of the flat pads of the cactus, and are pear-shaped. They can range in color from green (less sweet) to red (very sweet) and orange shades in between. The little spots you see on them are not thorns, but they are covered in glochids which are like little hair-like splinters that can stick into your skin and are very painful and very hard to see. When picking a prickly pear cactus fruit, you must protect your hands. You can use thick gloves or an old towel folded into a couple of layers. Six paper towels stacked together should also work just fine. Use the gloves or towels to grip the fruit, and gently twist it. The greener fruits will require a firmer grip and more twisting, and the riper fruits will pop right off with very little effort. Place the fruits into a bowl or basket. Do not touch the fruit with your bare hands.
Preparing the Cactus Fruit
First, you will need to get the glochids off so that you can handle the fruit. (If you purchase the fruit from a store, these glochids should already be removed.) The glochids can easily be burned off over an open flame. Grip a fruit with a pair of tongs or stick it on the end of a fork. Slowly turn the fruit over the open flame. As the glochids burn off you may hear popping sounds or see little sparks fly off the fruit. Continue until all of the spots are blackened, indicating the glochids are gone. Don’t forget to get the top and bottom of the fruit, as the glochid spots are more concentrated there.
Cutting the Skin
Begin by slicing about one-quarter inch off of the ends of the fruit. Then take your knife and slice the skin of the fruit lengthwise across the top, about one-quarter inch down into the fruit.
Removing the Skin
Use your fingers to pull the skin back off of the fruit. The skin is thin on the outside, but has a thick layer underneath that comes off too. Peel all of the skin off so that you are left with just the interior pear-shaped piece of fruit.
Serving the Prickly Pear
Now that the skin is removed, you can slice up the prickly pear to eat. The prickly pear has small, hard seeds that you cannot bite through, but they are safe to swallow if you prefer. Or you can chew on the fruit and seeds and spit the seeds out. You can also use a juicer or strainer to remove the seeds.