What's Cactus Pear? And How to Prep and Eat It
Also known as prickly pear, it’s the secret ingredient in many an upscale marg.
By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen
Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.
Cactus pears, also known as prickly pears, grow wild in Mexico where there commonly eaten. They’re also shipped to the U.S., where they’ve taken on superfood status because they’re one of the most nutrient-packed fruits that exist, high in vitamin c, calcium, antioxidants and dietary fiber. Read on to learn how to buy, prep and enjoy them.
What Is a Cactus Pear?
Named for its pear-like shape and size, the cactus pear comes from one of several varieties of opuntia cactus. Its prickly skin can range in color from green to purplish red; its soft, porous flesh (scattered with black seeds) from light yellow-green to deep pink. Also called prickly pear, this fruit has a melonlike aroma and a sweet but rather bland flavor. The fruits grow on the edges large, flat, green paddles called nopales in Spanish. The cactus fruit itself is called tuna in Spanish. The cactus paddles are also edible, and can be grilled, sauteed or pickled. Both are extremely popular in Mexico, Central and South America, the Mediterranean countries and Southern Africa, and have gained popularity in the United States.
What Does Cactus Pear Taste Like?
Cactus pear fruit tastes like a cross between intense, concentrated watermelon and cucumber. The texture is grainy like that of watermelon but denser and firmer.
How to Shop for Cactus Pear
Fresh cactus pears are available at specialty produce markets around the U.S. and most grocery stores in the Southwest and West. They come into season in the late fall and early winter. When you find them at the market, they have been scrubbed to remove the thorns, but you should still be careful.
When ripe, prickly pears turn from green to yellow or deep magenta. Look for firm cactus pears that feel heavy for their size without any bruises.
You can also find prickly pear syrup and frozen puree at specialty stores and online. In the produce department, you may be able to find fresh nopales paddles. For information on the green vegetable part of the cactus, check out Cooking with Cactus, the Life of the Desert.
How to Prep Cactus Pear
We recommend wearing gloves when prepping cactus pears, as there’s no guarantee that 100% of the thorns are gone.
To peel a prickly pear, cut off the ends, then cut through the skin just to the flesh. Work your finger under the skin and peel it off. Alternatively, you can slice it in half and scoop the flesh out of the skin with a spoon.
The flesh is filled with seeds that are completely edible, a bit like the crunch of a pomegranate seed.
How to Eat Cactus Pear
Raw catus pear is tastiest when it's cold, so store yours in the fridge even before peeling and slicing. The raw fruit can be pureed and strained and used as juice: a popular ingredient with bar tenders. It is also commonly cooked and reduced with sugar to make a syrup that’s used in cocktails, sauces and drizzled over shaved ice.
In Mexico, cactus pears are typically enjoyed raw like any other fruit. Red cactus pear sometimes turned into alcoholic beverages such as the liquor chiquito or the fermented drink colonche. It's also boiled into a sweet jam called melcocha that's spread on tortillas and bread.
How to Cook Cactus Pear
Most recipes call for cooking cactus pear down into pulp, straining it and then cooking it again to make syrup, sauces, jams and jelly.
Cactus Pear Recipes
This recipe uses frozen cactus prickly pear puree in the from-scratch BBQ sauce you make to go with the pork tenderloin.
After making fresh cactus prickly pear syrup, you’ll be adding some tequila, OJ, lime juice and seltzer. Add a salt rim if you'd like.
Hollow out whole cactus pears, turn the insides into sorbet and use the empty shells as pretty serving bowls.
Snag some premade prickly pear syrup, then use it to create a refreshing beverage with unsweetened ice tea and lemonade.
Start by making prickly pear syrup, then use it in classic margaritas made from tequila, triple sec, lime and, of course, salt.