Dec 102014
 

prickly pear in bloom

A lesson on harvesting and cooking prickly pear fruit from the Prickly Pear and Mesquite Festival at Superstition Mountain Museum

The prickly pear cactus is prevalent in the American southwest deserts and was a common food source for American Indians. The prickly pear has three edible sections: the pad of the cactus, the petals of the flowers and the pear or fruit.

At the Prickly Pear/Mesquite Festival at Superstition Mountain Museum in Apache Junction, Arizona, Jean Groen gave a cooking lecture, where I learned about the harvesting, preparation and cooking of the prickly pear fruit.

Superstition Mountain Museum ampitheater

Superstition Mountain Museum amphitheater, where Jean’s lecture took place

 

demonstration set up

Jean setting up

The prickly pear blossoms in brilliant colours – yellow, orange, red, fuchsia. Winter weather conditions influence the timing of spring blooming, but it is typically April or late March when the blooms begin in central Arizona. When the blossoms die off, a bulbous magenta-coloured fruit is left behind. The fruit can be cut into slices and eaten raw, or used to make jam, jelly, syrup, nectar, sorbet, wine, and candy.

Prickly pear is high in fiber, antioxidants and carotenoids. There is some evidence that it can help control blood sugar levels.

prickly pear fruit

Old fruit on prickly pear
(The fruit in this photo are past their prime – they were not harvested when ripe)

When is the prickly pear fruit ready to harvest? Jean says she watches the birds, bees and bugs. When they start eating the fruit it’s ready. That typically occurs in late July with harvesting season lasting to around Labour Day. After that the fruit becomes bitter.

Harvesting the fruit requires caution. It has tiny barbed spines called glochids. The glochids can severely irritate your skin. Long tongs are generally used to twist off the fruit. The prickly pear fruit can be used fresh or frozen for later use.

Before the fruit can be used, the glochids need to be removed. You may see recommendations to burn them off with a blowtorch or barbecue them. Jean doesn’t do that, saying that method would be too time-consuming for the amount of fruit she processes. She soaks the fruit in water and bleach (1 to 2 tablespoons of bleach to 5 gallons of water) and vigorously swirls them around with a brush. They stay in the bleach water for only a few minutes, after which they are thoroughly hosed down.

blending prickly pear syrup

Before and after: frozen prickly pear fruit in a blender, syrup after blending

Jean shared the proportions of ingredients she uses in making her prickly pear jelly:

2 and a half cups prickly pear syrup

1 package pectin

2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice

3 and a half cups sugar

half a teaspoon citric acid

She adds citric acid to help the jelly set. When asked whether she sealed her jam with paraffin, she said she didn’t. She uses the water bath canning method to seal her jam.

prickly pear product

After her talk, Jean set out samples.
Prickly pear margaritas on the left. The bees quickly discovered the prickly pear jelly on the right.

Prickly pear product for sale

Jean’s prickly pear and mesquite products for sale

Although harvesting and cooking prickly pear fruit might be an interesting challenge, I think I will take the easy way out and purchase the prepared products. 

If you decide to try cooking with prickly pear, consider Jean’s caution before heading into the desert to harvest. Cacti are protected plants. You are allowed to twist off the ripe fruit with tongs, but you are not allowed to cut the paddles.


Have you cooked with prickly pear?

prickly pear plants

 

  13 Responses to “Prickly Pear Cooking”

  1. Hi Donna, What an interesting post. I have not cooked with prickly pear yet. Harvesting it does seem to sound like a lot of work, as does cooking and canning the jam. Think I’ll stick with you on this and buy it already prepared. 🙂

    • Yes, it does seem a lot of work. I might try it if I could buy the fruit already cleaned of its glochids, but I am not usually in this part of the country during harvest season.

  2. Haven’t cooked with prickly pears but coincidentally, it was one of the ingredients the chefs were using in the Food TV Network’s “Chopped” last evening. Looks yummy!

  3. I didn’t know you could cook with prickly pears – I’d like to try it some time.

    • Prickly pear jams and syrups are readily found in the southwest states where prickly pear grows. I know prickly pear grows in other parts of the world, but I don’t know if is used for cooking in these places.

  4. Who knew that you could cook with prickly pear??? How interesting! Like you, I’m not sure I’d go for harvesting them, but it does look good!

    • It fun to find out about ingredients in cooking you never knew about. I sometimes wonder how people figured out what they could safely eat and how best to cook it in the first place.

  5. I remember tasting prickly pear candy as a kid when I grew up in California and I loved your post about how the fruit can be prepared and used to make many tasty dishes including jelly. We had prickley pear growing all over south Texas where we last lived and I always enjoyed the brightly colored yellow and red blooms.

  6. I enjoyed hearing about how to prepare the fruit, even if it sounds a bit more involved than I am prepared to tackle. I love the blooms on the prickly pear cactus – so delicate and vibrant looking at the same time.

  7. I did not know you could eat them! I am glad that you tried it for me! Super interesting post!

  8. I can’t say it’s the most appetizing looking thing. Never tried it but you’ve piqued my curiosity.

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