>U Mom Knows Best: How to Harvest and Prepare Prickly Pear Fruit

Monday, September 14, 2020

How to Harvest and Prepare Prickly Pear Fruit

 Can you eat cactus fruit? Prickly pear is the common name of a cactus that is native to New Mexico and other southwestern states. The edible fruit is a result of the cactus flower. This fruit is sweet and delicious. Learn how to pick prickly pear fruits.

 I have lived in New Mexico for 23 years and have never tasted a prickly pear tuna. I have seen the deep, dark magenta-colored fruits so many times when I am out running and have always been in awe of their beauty but it never crossed my mind to pick a prickly pear. Maybe the fact that these delicious purple fruits grow on a cactus that has sharp spines on it has been the reason. I have always wanted to harvest prickly pears but was never brave enough to touch a prickly pear fruit.

Good can come out of a pandemic

 The virus pandemic of 2020 has made me brave in so many ways and I have ventured out of my comfort zone so many times. The fact that I started a garden and grew vegetables still amazes me. I also became serious about making my body stronger and started doing more strength training. My newest thing is foraging for fruit and I have been brave about asking people if I can pick fruit from their trees. I am amazed at how many fruit trees are not being harvested near me. I am glad that I have two deep freezers for all my fruit bounty of plums, peaches, and now prickly pears.

 It was my younger son who got me harvesting prickly pears. While we were out running he grabbed one of the prickly pear fruits off of a cactus and brought it home. He peeled and cut the ruby red pear so I could sample it. It was so sweet and delicious. If you have never tasted a prickly pear, it has a sweet taste similar to watermelon and a texture like a soft cucumber. I was glad that my son picked a cactus pear for me to enjoy.

I have a prickly pear obsession 

 The next day, while I was out, running and gathering some apples for my no-peel apple crisp recipe, I decided to pick a couple more of the tunas from the prickly pear plant. I was glad that I always carry a bag with me on my running belt (never know when I might see a fruit tree while running) so I had something to carry the purple fruits from the prickly pear cactus home. After I peeled those pears and enjoyed them, I knew that I had to harvest more prickly pears. The fruits were calling my name and there was an abundance of them growing a couple blocks from my house on the jogging path. So the next day I decided to forage some prickly pears while I was out picking some peaches for my homemade peach fruit leather.

Free prickly pears for the taking

 I gathered up my fruit-picking supplies and hopped on my bicycle. I am glad that I equipped my bike years ago with rear baskets so I could use my bike for running errands. The prickly pear cactus plants were a couple blocks from my home, so biking made sense. I was amazed at how many prickly pear plants I discovered and they all had an abundance of ripe fruit pods on them. It was free fruit for the taking as they were along a public street and not near any houses. I had thought I had entered into a secret world as no one was picking these magenta fruits. Several people who saw me picking the prickly pears, said to me "I am glad someone is putting the prickly pears to good use." Which made me think that in past years, the fruit went to waste. I even had a man ask me if I was making prickly pear jelly. So I was on a mission to pick the prickly pears and fill up my freezers with fruit so would have plenty for the year for my smoothies.

 What is a prickly pear?

Prickly pear is the common name of a cactus that is native to New Mexico. The edible fruit is a result of the cactus flower. These hot pink fruits have a sweet taste that is similar to watermelon and a texture that is like a kiwi or a cucumber. They are so delicious and I love to eat them fresh. Care must be taken when picking the prickly pear because of the plant's sharp spines and small tiny spines called glochids. The tiny irritating spines cover the fruit of the prickly pear and those spines are a pain to get out of your hands. My son failed to tell me about the tiny spines but strong tape helped me remove them from my fingers.

When to pick prickly pear fruit?

 Picking prickly pears is best done in the late summer when the fruit has turned to a deep magenta color and has no green remaining on the fruit. Here in New Mexico, that time is usually the end of August through October. I have learned that there really is no best way to tell if the prickly pear is ripe by looking at it as I picked several that were the right color but were still green on the inside. So pick a few pears from the cactus and peel them before you pick more.

Prickly pears are low in calories and a good source of dietary fiber, vitamin C, calcium, and antioxidant compounds.

How to pick prickly pears

1. Grab a bucket, a big bowl, a shopping bag, or even a cardboard box ~ I used a reusable shopping bag to gather my prickly pears as they fit in my bike basket. If you choose to use a shopping bag be prepared to throw it away afterward as the tiny spikes will cling to the bag.

2. Use metal tongs to pluck the fruit ~ Other people will say to wear leather gloves but I do not recommend using the gloves to pick the pear tunas as the tiny spines will poke through the gloves. The first time I picked prickly pear fruit, I used a silicone glove and that got covered in those tiny spines and had to be tossed. So wear garden gloves but use tongs to pluck the fruit off the cactus.

3. Twist and pull ~ As you twist them off the pad, they should pop off immediately and dribble a little bit of purple juice.

5. Don’t pick up fruit off the ground ~ The fruit on the ground may be rotten or have bugs in them.

6. Leave at least one fruit per pad, so the desert critters can get their share and the plant can reproduce ~ I am not sure how the animals enjoy the prickly pears without getting poked but leaving a couple pears on the cactus will help the plant grow more.

How to remove the tiny spines or glochids from your hands

I don't care how careful you are in picking the prickly pears, you will get a couple of the glochids spikes in your hands. I have discovered several ways to remove these painful irritating thorns from your hands.

1. Use a piece of ice ~ just rub an ice cube over the tiny thorn and that will help your skin remove the thorn.

2. Ice water ~ Place your hands in a bowl of ice water for a couple of minutes and that too will help release the thorns.

3. Tape ~ I have found that duct tape or packing tape works to remove the thorns. Just place the tape over your fingers or hands and quickly pull it off.

4. Tweezers ~ If you can see the thorns, then use a pair of tweezers to remove them. Also, you can use tweezers to scrape the thorns out of your skin.

How to prepare the prickly pears for consuming

1. Place the prickly pears in a bucket of ice water for an hour ~ The best way to get the tiny painful spikes off pears is with ice-cold water. The freezing cold water helps the fruit release the glochids spines from the fruit. I have also found that sticking my hands in a small bowl of ice water helps me remove the glochids from my fingers, just don't stick your hands in the same container that the pears are in.

2. Drain and rinse the prickly pears ~ After the pears have soaked in the ice water for a least an hour, use the metal tongs to place them in a strainer. Then give the pears a good rinse. You might have to do this in batches depending on how many pears you have. After I rinse the fruit, I place them in a bowl. At this stage, the pears should be fine to handle with your hands but a few might still have tiny thorns on them so grab them by the ends.

3. Examine the fruit ~ The prickly pear should be a deep purple color or magenta. If the fruit is green or light pink, it will be bitter so just toss it. Be thankful that you pick the fruit for free and always pick double the amount as not all the fruits may be ripe. My first harvest of prickly pears was all ripe while the second batch from another plant had many unripe fruits.

Tip: To check to see if the prickly pear is ripe before peeling, place it in a bowl of water. If it sinks, it is ripe and ready to eat. If the fruit floats, then give it a couple more days to ripen. I like to place my pears on a baking tray on the countertop for a couple days to further ripen.

4. Slice and peel ~ Place the prickly pears on a cutting board and slice both ends off. Then peel the outer layer of the fruit off. If the pears are ripe, the outer layer should come off easily. The prickly pear fruits will have plenty of edible seeds inside them but there is no need to remove them now. If using the pears in smoothies, you can leave the seeds in the fruit. If you are using the fruit in recipes, then I recommend removing the seeds when you make the recipe.

Tip:  I recommend wearing vinyl gloves while peeling the skin off as your hands may turn purple and this also prevents the pokies from getting into your skin. Also, lay down a large old towel under the cutting board if you are prepping a lot of the fruit as there will be purple juice.

5. Use in recipes or freeze ~ Decide how you are going to enjoy your prickly pear harvest. Since I was going to use my pears in smoothies and future recipes like prickly pear lemonade, I decided to freeze the majority of my prickly pears. I did place a couple of the fruits in a container in the fridge to use for a couple days.

To eat the seeds or not

The seeds from the prickly pears are edible and will not harm you. The seeds are hard and hard to chew so they are fine when drinking them in a smoothie but I recommend removing the seeds when using them in recipes.

How to freeze prickly pears

Prickly pears can be frozen for a year or longer and are so easy to freeze. Just place the whole prickly pears on a cookie sheet and place it in the freezer. Once the pears are frozen solid, place them into a freezer bag and place them back into the freezer. This makes it easy to grab a few for smoothies or other recipes.

How to use prickly pears in recipes

 To use prickly pears in recipes, there are several ways to do so. Prickly pears can be enjoyed in smoothies and there is no need to remove the seeds. If you choose to use the delicious prickly pears in recipes then here are three methods to choose from:

1. Put them in the blender and blend them whole, if they are frozen let them thaw first. Then strain the pulp and juice through a fine-mesh strainer to remove the seeds.

2. Freeze them whole for a day or so, then let them thaw and mash to release the juice. Strain the pulp through a fine-mesh strainer to remove the seeds.

What to make with prickly pears

The prickly pears are tasty on their own and can be enjoyed in things like smoothies and salads. While doing my research on prickly pear recipes, I discovered that many people use the prickly pear juice to make many prickly pear recipes like:

~ Jam or jelly
Prickly Pear Syrup
~ Pink prickly pear lemonade
~ Margaritas or mimosas
~ Prickly pear peach chutney
~ Prickly pear BBQ sauce
~ Kombucha tea (a type of fermented tea)
~ Prickly pear cheesecake
~ Prickly pear ice cream or sorbet

 I am choosing to use my prickly pears in my morning protein smoothies and in lemonade. The recipes for prickly pear jam and syrup call for way too much sugar. I may make prickly pear sorbet in the future. If you need prickly pear recipes, just do some searching online. Next up is learning to harvest the prickly pear cactus pads. These are more intense to process as they have a ton of long spikes on them and you have to burn them off to pick the cactus pads.

Have you tasted a prickly pear?


Anonymous said...

I've never had a prickly pear before. They're beautiful though!!! Wish I would have grown some when I lived in AZ!

Sherry said...

I have heard of prickly pears before but have never had one. I wish we could get them to grow up here in Canada. They sound yummy.

Brandy Ellen said...

I've never heard of or seen a prickly pear before. This is really neat. There is some good that came out of the pandemic for us being stuck at home or doing things to adjust how we would typically live in the past. Glad you shared this with us.

Gervin Khan said...

To be honest, this is my first time to know that you can eat a prickly pears and how to pick this tree from its tree. This is so nice and I really love knowing new things about this fruit. Thank you!

S. Graham said...

This brings back so many memories. I used to love picking this as a child and using it all over the place.

Gust si Aroma said...

I tasted pickly pear some time ago and I love it! Thank you for telling more about this wonderful fruit!

Toni said...

This is so helpful! I don't usually use prickly pear but I will definitely give this a try!

Ben said...

My great grandmother had one of these in a huge barrel. It was just for decoration, though. For years, I had no idea that they were edible.

Renee said...

I love prickly pear anything. We have a couple in the yard here that I get from every year.

AiringMyLaundry said...

I am curious to try this. I don't think I ever have. Perhaps mixed up in a drink but it was ages ago.

Monica Simpson said...

I have heard of prickly pear but I didn't know they grew on cacti. I would love to try one! I think our one grocery store that has more exotic produce carries them.

Beautiful Touches said...

I have seen a handful of cacti in neighbors yards in the past with the fruits on it but never knew how one would prepare them, thanks for sharing!

Tammy said...

What an interesting fruit that tastes like watermelon.

Richelle Milar said...

This is so interesting! I would really love to try this! I like to taste it myself.

Christy G said...

I've never had prickly pears. We don't have them growing where i live in Texas but if I did, I would try at least one of these. They are very pretty in color too.

Marysa said...

I've never had prickly pear fruit. It looks delicious! It would be neat to be able to harvest these.

moonlightmel said...

I have never had prickly pear fruit before but it sure sounds amazing! I need to give it a try now

Anonymous said...

The prickly pear comes in different colors. Mine are orange when ready. They never turn red. I believe they can even come in green and be ready to eat!

Mom Knows Best said...

I have only tasted the purple ones. I would love to find the other colors. Do they all have the same taste?

Anonymous said...

Eastern prickly pear cactus is native to Ontario

Anonymous said...

When making Prickly pear Jelly I will take some juice and add Cherries to make Cherry prickly pear preserves! It is a great late summer jelly coming just after sweet corn cob jelly season.

Anonymous said...

Prickly pear is considered an invasive cactus species in West Texas. Be careful if you decide to plant it in your yard or garden as they multiply fast and are extremely hard to get rid of. I have 5 acres of this menace.

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