Our prickly pear cactus
This time of the year, I pick the fruit and juice it and then freeze it until I need it for Prickly Pear Lemonade and Margaritas or when I am ready to make prickly pear jelly and syrup for Christmas presents.
Prickly pears contain lots of vitamins and minerals and have medicinal value–lowering blood pressure, helping diabetes, and curing hangovers! Even if they don’t grow where you live, you can order the juice.
Throughout the Southwest United States, dozens of varieties of prickly pear cactus grow. Just in my yard, we have at least four different ones. Most are fairly small. We do have one large plant by the pool that has huge fruit. Each plant tastes a bit different.
I’m often asked about the process and for the recipe for the jelly, so here you go…
Gathering the fruit—what you need
- I’ve heard it is illegal to just go gather anywhere, but honestly, I find plants along the roads and have never had anyone object. If it does look like someone’s private property, obviously, ask. Otherwise, go gather before for birds do.
- A large pot or plastic tub is best for this. Do NOT try to gather in a paper or cloth bag. You will be very, very sorry and covered with painful stickers.
- A nice pair of tongs. Of course! You would never think of grabbing these with your hand. Or even with gloves. Respect nature and her defenses—use tongs.
They will be just fine in a cool place if you want to wait a couple of days before processing. Or go to the next step.
Harvesting the juice
There are a lot of recipes and ways to do this. Many involve peeling the fruit or holding the pear over a flame to remove the nasty spines. My method is much easier unless you want the pulp to chop up for a recipe.
Most pears have lots of thorns and small hair-like spines. I rarely get through this process without getting a few in my hands or strangely, on my torso. That’s what tweezers are for! But, by no means, touch or hold the pears. Use the tongs and rinse your bucket well-there will still be spines after you have emptied it.
Process to obtain juice:
- Dump the pears into your sink
- Wash them to remove any dirt. You aren’t trying to get the thorns and stickers off—just clean them. I use the spray setting on my faucet and pick each one up with tongs to rinse.
- Place in a very large pot (like the size you would boil lobsters in!).
- Add about 1” of water.
- 5. Cover and start on medium until you’ve got the water boiling and steam is rising.
- 6. Lower to simmer and steam/cook covered for an hour or so. They are ready when you can take a potato masher and they smush easily. Cook as long as you need to get them soft but keep your heat low so you don’t boil away the juice. The spines are now nice and soft, but you still want avoid touching them directly.
- 7. Put a large colander into a large bowl. Use an old sheet or T-shirt to line the colander. Cheesecloth is not good for this–it will let seeds and spines through.
- 8. Let the cooked pears cool. You will have both pears and juice in your pot. Pour into the colander until it is about 1/2 full and smush with a potato masher. The seeds and skins will be all that is left after you do some good pressings. Keep pressing until the pump is juiceless.
- 9. As the bowl begins to fill, pour the juice into jars or bottles. I use large (SMART) water bottles that have been well rinsed. Do not fill to the top if you are gonna freeze-leave at least a couple of inches or expansion.
- 10. Then continue in as many batches as you have, throwing out the pressed pears (I put them in my compost. The seeds are very hard-I would not put them down the garbage disposal).
- 11. Freeze until needed or refrigerate for 2-3 weeks.
This year I am experimenting with peeling and seeding the pears to use the pulp, instead of just pressing the juice out of them. I’ll update this when I make the jam I’ve planned for this. It sure is a lot more work.
Jelly, Syrup, Lemonade and Margaritas!
I will fill a dozen or more large bottles of juice and put them in the freezer until needed. I do, at all times, have a bottle in the refrigerator to put a tablespoon or two in my morning smoothie or so I can make lemonade or a margarita if someone comes by.
Jelly and Syrup
For many years, this was my tried and true recipe. It is almost foolproof, jelling every time into nice firm jelly.
Prickly Pear Jelly Ingredients:
1 cup Prickly Pear juice
3 cups of sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 pouch of liquid Certo
Combine prickly pear juice and sugar in a tall saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn heat down as needed while stirring constantly. After a minute, add Certo and continue boiling being careful to stir and adjust the heat so it doesn’t boil over for 2 more minutes. Add the lemon juice, stir and pour into sterile jars. I have not found it necessary to do a hot water bath to can. If you pour the hot jelly into jars and put the lids on, tightening a bit after a little while, the jars will seal. It may take a day or two to set.
This recipe rarely doesn’t set, but, if it doesn’t—you have juice!
In the past few years, I’ve been trying recipes with less sugar for health reasons. With less sugar, you also get a stronger taste of the prickly pears. This is the recipe that works most of the time, but I often get at least 1 batch that doesn’t gel.
Prickly Pear Jelly Ingredients:
3 1/2 cups of sugar
2 1/2 cups of prickly pear juice
3 T lemon juice
1 envelope (1 3/4 oz) powdered pectin
Combine powdered pectin and prickly pear juice in
For syrup (if you don’t have enough unjelled jelly):
Prickly Pear Syrup Ingredients:
2 cups prickly pear juice
Juice of 1 lemon
1 1/2 cups sugar
Combine and bring to a boil. Pour into bottles. This syrup will keep a few weeks in the refrigerator or you can process it with sealed lids like above.
Prickly Pear Margarita Ingredients:
2 oz. prickly pear juice
6 oz. Tequila
2 oz. Triple Sec
4 oz. Lime juice
2 oz. Orange Juice
Optional-1 Chile pepper- seeded and diced
Mix together and either pour over ice in salted rimmed glasses or blend with ice. Enjoy!!
Prickly Pear Lemonade Ingredients:
4 cups of water
1 cup lemon juice (or juice of 4 lemons)
1 cup prickly pear juice
1 cup sugar
Mix everything together in a pitcher until sugar is dissolved. Serve over ice.
Alternative: Buy an 1/2 gallon of Organic Lemonade and add 2 cups of prickly pear juice to it.
Other recipes and information:
Enjoy these colorful treats! And please come share your recipes!