Prickly Pear Fruit: Harvesting, Handling, & Prepping

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Back in July Coach and I made an impromptu trip to the deer lease in Ozona to put up feeders and deer stands in preparation for the 2017 – 2018 season. Football season was about to get really focused so it was one last hoorah before Coach’s crazy season.

It was great family fun, and on our final morning I decided that I couldn’t let the beautiful bounty of prickly pears that had taken over the landscape go to waste. There were thousands of ripe prickly pear fruits a hundred yards from the camper, and they just seemed to be calling my name. “Noel, don’t let us go to waste!”

So with no planning and no prepping I grabbed an empty Natty Lite box and a pair of metal tongs and set out to claim my prize.

And from that prize I can now tell you all the what-to and what-not-to dos of picking and handling prickly pear.

Now sure, if I had been in a not-remote area or had the foresight that I’d be picking prickly pears I could have Googled countless websites about prickly pear, but in the middle of nowhere that wasn’t my best option. Instead I made a few mistakes that I can now share with you.

I thought I was being smart with my big box and metal tongs. Ha, just try to get me silly cactus! To which the cactus said, “Ok.”

You see, cactus have two kinds of spines on them:  The kind you can see and the kind you can barely see. The ones you can barely see are the actual problems. I knew they would be the issue, but I really thought if I didn’t touch the cactus I’d be safe.

This is not true!

Those little hairlike spines, called glochids, will get you not matter how careful you are not to touch them. In my case, my beer box got so heavy that I had to hug it to carry it. Those crazy glochids found their way through the cracks of the box and into my shirt, shorts, and even my undergarments! Those spines made me use the word undergarments!

I found spines in my skin for days! Elmer’s glue is the best solution I found for the thorns that I couldn’t see hiding in my hands. I had lots of fun painting my skin with glue, letting it dry, and peeling it off an hour later. Most of the time it got the spines out. And it really took me back to third grade.

Got tiny cactus spines? Elmer’s glue to the rescue! (Is it bad that I’m excited about peeling it off?)

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Unfortunately I have four spots on my hand still {two months later!} that seem to have something in them. While I am not a medical expert and I cannot endorse or verify any medical information, I’ve found some relief from taking silica at my sister-in-law’s suggestion. The spots on my hand are no longer tender to the touch, although they still look like sores. However, please do your own research before taking any kind of supplement. Apparently there are some people who should never take silica and you should definitely find out if you’re one of those people before attempting it as a remedy for thorn removal.

 

What I Should Have Done Differently

In retrospect I should have done some things differently in my quest for this vibrant and unique fruit. I’ll outline those differences as I go, but the most important change should happen before ever touching the prickly pear fruit, even with tongs.

The next time {and there will be a next time} I harvest prickly pear I will first invest in one of these pear burners.


These magnificent torches can be used to burn off all those pesky spines and thorns and glochids before you ever handle the fruit. The succulence of the plant will keep the fruit from burning, but after torching the cactus you can pick those prickly pears to your heart’s content!

 

What I Tried to Do

Since I didn’t have a pear burner with me I tried to do the next best thing:  burn the glochids off at home.

I ended up with three cookie sheets and two casserole pans full of prickly pear. It was a monstrous amount of fruit. Prickly pear for days!

I thought I’d be able to use Coach’s handheld propane torch to achieve the same goal as the pear burner.

A handcramp and several hours later that proved to be an impossible feat. I burned the spines off of one tray and still had four to go. Not ideal.

I had another trip planned, so the prickly pears would have to wait. I stuck all the pans of unprocessed prickly pear in the fridge and headed out of town.

The next week I did a little research where I read that if I blanched the prickly pears the glochids should soften and I’d be safe.

I’d already planned on blanching the prickly pears to remove the skins, and with four trays remaining I figured it’d be worth a try. Depending on what you want to use your prickly pear for you’ll probably want to peel them, so blanching would be a necessary step anyway.

I still recommend blanching the prickly pears, but not without torching the spines off first. Let me say it again:  get a pear burner and burn those suckers off in the very beginning. I blanched most of my pears with the spines on and I paid for it with handfuls of spines.

 

Blanching the Prickly Pears

Blanching sounds like a fancy word, but it really just means to boil for a minute or two. Blanching the fruit will allow the skin to separate slightly making it easier to peel the skins off. You’ll want a blanching station set up first:  a big pot of water, a basket for easy draining, and an ice chest full of ice.

In batches, add the de-spined prickly pears to the basket,

lower into the boiling water,

boil for a minute or two, drain, and dump the fruit into the ice chest.

Repeat the blanching process until all the fruits have been blanched.

 

Peeling the Prickly Pear

Set up a peeling station OUTSIDE. No matter how hard you try you will get purple juice everywhere. It does wash off of plastics pretty easily, but I wouldn’t want to take a chance of staining countertops. It started raining while I was peeling so my sweet Coach set up a tent for me.

In my experience, peeling the fruit was easiest when I used a knife to core out the hard “stem” area of the prickly pear,

and then peeled the skin off from the tip to the stem area.

There were a few stubborn prickly pears that didn’t want to peel. I used a spoon to scrape the fruit away from the skin for those.

You’ll notice that these fruits are jam-packed with seeds. We’ll address those in the next post.

When I started peeling the prickly pears it was full daylight. When I stopped peeling prickly pears it was after midnight. I watched a lot of episodes of The Office on my phone in the process.

Pro-Tip:  Organize a prickly pear peeling committee. Many hands make light work! However, your committee should know that their hands will be stained purple for several days afterwards.

Place the peeled prickly pears in large bowls and refrigerate until you’re ready to use them.

 

Coming Next…

Up next I’ll share my experience with Prickly Pear Jelly.

Do you have experience picking prickly pear? What pro-tips would you add? Tell us in the comments!

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  • Kelli White

    So I do not peel them. I pick them with tongs like you did, the burn off the stickers with a hand torch burning, turning them over until all sides are burnt. Then I wear thick yellow dishwashing gloves and chop them up in big chunks. Put them in a pot and fill with water until it just covers the fruit. Boil them down, about 10 – 15 minutes and then mash them with a potato masher, thoroughly. Then strain your juice and there ya go!!! No needles in my hands, no peeling. Simple and easy. I have done this for years and made countless jars of jelly. Good luck! Hope this helps!

    • Thank you for your tips, Kelli! I’m really looking forward to working with them again.

      Do you actually char the skin like you would with a pepper or just burn the spines? Next time you make a batch I’d love it if you shared some photos in the comments here.

      Also, out of curiosity, how large of a quantity do you usually work with at a time?

      • Kelli White

        I do not char the skin usually, just burn the spines and small stickers from them. I actually have a YouTube channel and planned to do a video of the process. I will send you a link when I have it completed! 🙂
        Also, I usually work with about a 5-gallon bucket of pears at a time since it makes so much juice!
        Yes, I would love to share some photos!

        • Noel

          Be sure to link your video when it’s up! Looking forward to it!

        • B.Russell

          We put some of them in a colander and swirl them around the colander under running sink water.
          it will remove the spines and wash them too. We have put in a blender whole then strain the mash through cheese cloth to get the juice. I want to by a juicer for the future to make even easier work of it. Fyi some juice in a glass of lemonade is very good, as well as in a margarita.

          • I did try running it under water but my spines were pretty stubborn. I could still see them. Maybe I let them sit too long before processing. Do you rinse immediately after picking?

            I’ve also heard good things about seed mills for getting the seeds out, but I don’t know much about juicers.

            And I made the margaritas on Sunday. Recipe coming soon! 🙂

  • Kelli White

    As promised, here’s the link to my YouTube video. Hope you enjoy watching & I can’t wait to hear what you think.

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=MJN_Yy18F4o

    Have a great day!!

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