Cactus Pears and 10 Ways to Use Them

April 12, 2014

Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which we break down our favorite unique seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more.

Today: Beneath their prickly exterior lies a technicolored treat.

Cactus Pears and 10 Ways to Use Them, from Food52

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Another addition to the collection of Who first figured out this was edible? produce, cactus pears are the fruit of -- wait for it -- a cactus. Shocker, right? Specifically the nopal cactus, and yes, that’s where nopales come from too. The fruit (also called prickly pears or tunas) can come in a wide range of colors, although you’re probably most likely to come across fruits with a reddish-purple or reddish-brown exterior (2, below) and vibrant magenta flesh (1, below) that's sweet and reminiscent of watermelon. 

Cactus Pears and 10 Ways to Use Them, from Food52

Unless you're out picking these yourself, the fruits' large spines will have been removed -- but they still need to be handled with care, due to the presence of small hairs called glocides. They're almost invisible, but should you choose to handle the fruits carelessly, they will make themselves known. (This is not the kind of poke that makes you giggle. Trust us.) We found it easiest to simply cradle the fruits in a tea towel (4, below), slice them in half, and then scoop out the flesh with a spoon (3, below).

Alternatively, skin them by slicing off the top and bottom of the fruit, make a shallow cut down the length of the fruit, and then peel away the skin. If you don’t want to risk staining your favorite tea towel, your other options are to wear gloves, torch the fruits briefly to burn off the glocides, or soak the fruits in water and then brush away the spines with a (new) toothbrush or kitchen brush. 

More: There's no need to fear produce with built-in armor -- here's how to prep cardoons.

Depending on the variety, the fruits ripen from early spring into late fall; select firm fruits that are uniformly colored and free from bruises or moldy patches. If they are more rock-hard than firm, let them ripen on the counter for a day or two. Once ripe, they'll keep well in the refrigerator for about a week or so.

Cactus Pears and 10 Ways to Use Them, from Food52

The flesh is studded with small edible seeds -- whether or not you’ll actually want to eat them is another matter: Hank Shaw says “it’s like eating a wood chip.” We say a mouthful of pebbles -- tomato, tomahto -- either way, our preference is to extract the juice. Blend the flesh in a food processor or blender, and then strain it like so.

The juice can be used as is -- mix it into lemonade; make jelly, sorbet, or ice cream; use it to flavor frosting -- or reduce the it into a syrup to use in cocktails, as a glaze for meat, or in a vinaigrette. If you don't mind the seeds, add chunks of the flesh to a fruit salad, or use firm green cactus pears in a pico de gallo, as author/illustrator Marcella Kriebel does in Comida Latina. And if you stumble across prickly pear extract, it can be used to prevent a hangover: The catch is remembering to take it prior to a wild night out (or just stick with our DIY hangover cures).

What are your favorite ways to use cactus pears? Are we crazy? Do you enjoy the crunchy seeds? Tell us in the comments!

Photos by James Ransom

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Sue O'Bryan
    Sue O'Bryan
  • KarenLyons
  • aargersi
  • diana
I like esoteric facts about vegetables. Author of the IACP Award-nominated cookbook, Cooking with Scraps.


Sue O. April 12, 2014
I recently discovered this wonderful fruit, grown by a man in his front yard in Hermosa Beach, CA . . . he brings them to the Friday Venice Farmer's Market. I was so besotten with them that the next week, on a long bike ride up PCH when I spied them along the road, I stopped and hastily picked one . . . I am still fishing needles out of my biking gloves!
KarenLyons April 12, 2014
My grandmother used to make prickly pear jelly and she'd pick the tuna herself in Arizona. I harvested some tuna and the jelly didn't set. I found out that you need to add some green tuna to the mix because they have more pectin.
aargersi April 12, 2014
They are all over our neighborhood - we must forage this year!!! My sister in law makes jelly every year
diana April 12, 2014
As I was saying before auto correct mistakenly corrected a word...... Jelly, not Killy! Lol :)
diana April 12, 2014
They grow in Kefalonia, Greece. As children when we would visit over the summer, our grandmother who had arthritis and such would go & climb over the rock walls through the neighboring fields where they grew wild & she would pick them when they were ripe. She would not let us touch them until she had cut off the needles & cleaned the fruit. Sliced up & served on one of her old floral kitchen dishes. They always remind me of her. :) A few years back I stumbled upon a Killy made from prickly pears imported from Italy. It was amazing!!!!