Prickly pear cactus has been a staple in Mexican and Central American cooking for thousands of years. It’s also gaining popularity around the world as a healthy addition to a balanced diet.
The prickly pear plant has three different edible sections:
- The pad of the cactus, called nopal, can be used as a vegetable.
- The flower petals can be used as a garnish or added to salads.
- The pear, which can be eaten like any other fruit.
This exotic ingredient will feel more familiar after you try out these nine delicious recipes.
Nopalitos con huevos (Nopal cactus with eggs)
This recipe is a Mexican food staple. It’s a zesty mixture of Mexican chorizo, nopalitos, jalapenos, eggs, tomatoes, and onions. The mixture may be eaten plain or spooned into warm tortillas topped with cotija cheese.
You can find nopal, the pads of the prickly pear cactus, fresh, or you can buy them prepared without the spines and already cut into pieces. If you buy them fresh, look for smaller pads, which are more flavorful. Get the recipe!
2. Prickly pear simple syrup
This syrup is made by simmering boiled, mashed, and strained prickly pear fruit in sugar. Lemon is added for tartness. Use this syrup on pancakes, on top of other fruit, or in any dessert recipe that calls for syrup. When you look for prickly pears, remember that mature ones are a darker green, or blackish purple. Ripe fruits tend to be redder at the base. Get the recipe!
Chicken thighs with spicy prickly pear glaze
Prickly pear syrup isn’t just for pancakes and desserts. It adds delightful flavor to grilled meat. For this recipe, chicken thighs are marinated in a prickly pear sauce and baked. Get the recipe!
4. Prickly pear jelly
Take a boring PB&J to a whole new level with jelly made from prickly pears. To make prickly pear margarita jelly, add lime juice and zest, orange zest, and tequila. Try either version on toast, English muffins, or scones. Get the recipe!
5. Prickly pear, orange, and mint
Prickly pears and citrus are a tasty culinary match. This simple fruit salad combines prickly pears, orange wedges, honey, and fresh mint. Try making it as a side dish for your next barbecue. Get the recipe!
6. Cactus pear sorbet
For an elegant yet easy-to-make dessert, try this light sorbet. All you’ll need is an ice cream machine, prickly pears, sugar, lemon juice, and salt. Get the recipe!
7. Prickly pear lemon bars
Classic lemon bars get an upgrade in this recipe. It starts with a cookie base made with chopped pecans, butter, flour, and sugar. The stars of the tart and sweet filling are prickly pear juice, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Get the recipe!
8. Cactus fries
These are no ordinary fries! Prickly pear nopales are the main ingredient instead of potatoes. They are also baked instead of fried. Get the recipe!
9. Prickly pear smoothie
Make your morning smoothie pretty in pink with prickly pears. The pears combine well with coconut water to make a refreshing drink. Get the recipe!
Prickly pear health benefits
Prickly pear makes a healthy addition to any dish because it’s a good source of fiber, vitamin C, and calcium. In recent years, prickly pear has gained a reputation for its medicinal as well as culinary purposes. It’s been touted as a hangover cure, and some people use it to lower blood sugar and cholesterol and even to lose weight. But is there any evidence to back up these claims?
Prickly pear has shown some promise as a hangover cure. One older study found that the plant extract can reduce hangover symptoms of nausea, dry mouth, and anorexia if taken five hours before drinking.
Prickly pear is generally recognized as safe and has been consumed for centuries. Eating the nopal has been shown to lower cholesterol, and its high-fiber content may make it a good addition to the diets of people with diabetes. But take note: Not all prickly pear parts are the same. To date, only the broiled stems of a specific species called Opuntia streptacantha have been shown to lower blood sugar immediately after meals.
If you’re living in an area where prickly pears are abundant, you’re lucky. Prickly pears are versatile and add a sweet, melon-like flavor to recipes. Don’t let this unique fruit intimidate you. With a little preparation and knowledge, prickly pears are surprisingly easy to handle.
A word of caution: Prickly pears are delicious on the inside, but their sharp outer spines (glochids) show no mercy when touched. Use caution when handling prickly pears, especially for the first time. Carefully remove the spines using thick gloves and a paring knife.