How to Harvest, Prepare, and Eat Prickly Pear Cactus
What Is Prickly Pear?
Native to the Western hemisphere, the prickly pear is a member of the Opuntia genus of the cactus family Cactaceae. This type of cactus is a common sight in arid or semi-arid regions of the world, particularly in Mexico, the Americas, the Mediterranean, Australia, and Africa.
Although the prickly pear cactus is the only member in the Opuntia genus of cacti, there are over 200 different species within the genus. Every species of prickly pear cactus shares several striking features:
Prickly Pear Characteristics
- Paddle-Like Stems: Their large paddle-like shaped leaves, also known as nopales, are actually flattened stems or branches. They are edible and can be cooked as a vegetable. Mexican cuisine makes frequent use of nopales.
- Fruits: The fruits, also known as tunas, vary in color from yellow-green to deep magenta. They vary in size from that of a small plum to that of a large kiwi, and the sweetness depends on ripeness.
- Flowers: The flowers vary in color from yellow, orange, red, to mauve. They are edible, as well.
Prickly pear goes by many different names, depending on where in the world you are. Common names include nopal or nopales, sabra, tuna (fruit), opuntia, paddle cactus, Barbary fig, and Indian fig.
Prickly Pear Pads (Nopales)
The flat green pads of the prickly pear cactus (actually the stems) are eaten like a vegetable. Thick and fleshy, they are widely used in Mexico as a staple food in the diet.
When cooked, their flavor is comparable to green beans and their texture is similar to okra. The pads are often sold whole, though you can also find them cut up in strips or cubes and bagged for convenience.
If you fancy harvesting your own stems from the wild or your backyard, no problem—but you need to make sure you follow a few pointers.
How to Harvest Nopales
- Wear thick gloves or use a long pair of tongs, as the spines are extremely irritating if lodged in the skin.
- Pick young stems that are approximately the size of an adult hand and half an inch thick. Bright green, firm ones that are harvested in early spring will be the most flavorful and succulent, and they will have fewer spines. Thicker, older pads have a thicker sap, which many people find have an unpleasant taste.
- Cut the nopales with a sharp paring knife (or twist off). Be sure to leave an inch of stem behind for it to re-sprout. Cutting is preferable to twisting off; it is less stressful to the plant and helps keep the plant healthy.
- Collect the nopales into a large plastic container or even wrap them in newspaper if you are harvesting in the garden. You need to remove the spines and glochids (clusters of tiny barbed spines) as soon as possible.
When harvesting and preparing nopales, wear gloves to protect your hands! The glochids (clusters of tiny barbed spines) can be very painful if they embed in your skin.
How to Remove the Spines and Glochids: 3 Methods
Some species of prickly pear may not have spines, but they will all have glochids, which are clusters of tiny, hard-to-see barbed spines. The glochids are particularly hard to remove (and painful!) if they become embedded in the skin, so it's important to take care during this process. Protect your hands by wearing gloves!
- Potato peeler: Peel the pads with a potato peeler to remove all the spines and glochids. Rinse thoroughly.
- Blow-torch or flame: Another method of preparing the pads is to burn off the spines and glochids with a blow-torch or over a flame using the tongs.
- Elmer's glue or tape: Yet a third method is using Elmer’s glue. Apply the glue over the spines and allow dry until a “skin” forms. The spines lift easily when you peel off the glue. This will also work for any spines embedded from the cactus fruit and works for splinters. If you don’t have the glue, try using duct tape or masking tape instead.
Whichever method you choose, make sure you double-check carefully to make sure you haven't missed any spines or glochids.
How you are using this vegetable will determine whether you leave the pads whole or cut them into strips or cubes. If you are cutting them, wipe the knife after each cut on kitchen paper. There may still be glochids present.
How to Store Fresh Nopales
If you are not using them immediately, you may store them in the fridge. Wrap them tightly in Clingfilm or plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to two weeks.
If this is your first time trying nopales, I'd recommend buying them at the store rather than harvesting your own. Proper harvesting and preparation techniques require a lot of attention to detail.
How to Cook Nopales
The prickly pear cactus pads, or nopales, may be used in a variety of nutritious dishes, including salads, stews, omelets, casseroles, breads, and tortillas. They may also be simply pickled in brine and used as a condiment. The possibilities are near limitless!
In terms of cooking preparation, the pads may be boiled, grilled, steamed, or sauteed.
- Boiled: When boiling the pads, you may have to change the water and re-boil a few times. The sap that comes from the pad may be thick. As a guide, the thicker the pad, the thicker the sap. After boiling, drain off the sap and rinse the pads in cold water.
- Grilled: When grilling, season well with salt and pepper. The pads are ready when they are slightly brown in color and tender to the touch. They could also be seasoned with a little olive oil, a squeeze of lime juice, and a little salt.
- Sauteed or steamed: Sauteeing and steaming also work well for cooking the nopales.
Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit
The fruit of the prickly pear cactus is called a prickly pear or a tuna.
- Shape: Oval
- Size: Range from that of a small plum to that of a large kiwi
- Color: Range from yellow-green to deep magenta
- Sweetness: The yellow-green fruits are less ripe and sweet, whereas the deep red to purplish ones are the most ripe and the sweetest. In Mexico, the yellow-green tunas are the most popular to eat, even though they are not as sweet.
- Outer skin: Tough skin featuring glochids (and some may also have spines)
- Inner flesh: Fleshy, juicy pulp with edible seeds (though some people prefer to remove the seeds).
As with the nopales (prickly pear cactus stems), the fruit has glochids. Sore-bought prickly pear fruit should be spine free and safe to handle without gloves. If you are harvesting the fruit yourself, though, they will need to be thoroughly processed to remove the spines and glochids. Make sure you use gloves and a pair of tongs (long BBQ style tongs are perfect).
How to Harvest the Fruit
When harvesting your own fruit, remember to wear gloves and use a pair of long tongs. While all cactus fruit is edible, not all will be necessarily ripe so look for the darker-skinned fruits before they start to wrinkle. They will detach pretty easily, but use a knife if needed.
Place them in a container, colander, or wrap them in newspaper or even a few plastic bags, depending on where you are collecting them from.
How to Prepare the Fruit
- Wearing gloves and using tongs, place 5 to 6 fruits at a time in a colander. Rinse gently under cold water by swirling around. This will remove all the hard-to-see glochid spines.
- Keep doing this for 3 to 4 minutes, taking care not to bruise the delicate fruit.
- When fully satisfied, remove the fruits from the colander and pat dry.
- With a sharp kitchen knife, slice off the top and the bottom of the fruit.
- Cut the fruit lengthwise just through the skin (similar to peeling an orange) and make a slit. Use the knife to help lever off and peel off the thick skin.
How to Eat the Fruit
You can eat prickly pear whole, which I find to be deliciously refreshing and cooling on a hot summer's day. You can also add it into a variety of dishes such as salads, jams, jellies, yogurts, and breads, Sweet treats like sorbets, candies, and syrups are another great way to use this fruit, or you could use it to concoct tasty drinks, including juices, smoothies, and wines.
When I eat the fruit by itself, I prefer to either remove the seeds ahead of time or simply spit them (as you might with a slice of watermelon).
Health Benefits (Pads and Fruit)
Prickly pear has many health benefits. It is a good source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, amino acids, Vitamins A and C, fiber, carotenoids, and antioxidants. It also has antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. It is believed that this fruit may help protect against cardiovascular disease as well as obesity.
Some research has suggested that the fruit may help lower cholesterol, prevent hangovers, and protect against Type-2 diabetes, though more studies are required.
Possible Side Effects
When introducing a new food into your diet, it is advisable to take caution. Some side effects associated with prickly pear include nausea, mild diarrhea, increased stool volume, increased stool frequency, headaches, and fullness of the stomach.
Warning: Do not eat prickly pear if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you will be undergoing surgery within the next two to three weeks.
If you are taking medication, always seek medical advice when considering adding this food—or any new ingredient—to your diet.
Would you eat cactus fruit?
Cosmetic Uses for Prickly Pear
Prickly pear is so versatile—not only can it be eaten but it has cosmetic uses, as well! Some of the products it has been incorporated into include shampoos, soaps, skin oils, skin creams, face masks, fragrances, and lip balms.
Cacti are an incredibly fascinating group of succulents. Perceived by some as annoying, tough, spiny, and menacing, they are an incredibly important part of the desert ecosystem, providing a nutritious food source for animals and humans alike.