How to Harvest and Prepare Prickly Pear Fruit

Late summer cactus foraging

Ever since I saw Billy Crystal in the movie, City Slickers, I’ve wanted to experience a real-life dude ranch. The comedy flick also made me aspire to run with the bulls in Pamplona, but that will wait for another story.

Dude Ranch Dream

Last weekend I lived out my dude ranch dream at Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, where I rode well-trained horses, ate gourmet cowboy grub and harvested the fruit of the prickly pear cactus. Late summer is prickly pear harvest season and I thought I’d share some tips about foraging the colorful fruit that you can use in cocktails, desserts or even BBQ sauces.

Harvesting prickly pears with tongs

Harvesting prickly pear fruit at Tanque Verde Ranch

At Tanque Verde Ranch, we used long, stainless steel utility tongs that you would find in the kitchen. The tongs helped us reach across the prickly pear plant and avoid the menacing needles. I searched for the fruit – also called tuna – that had a deep, dark magenta color with no green remaining. The color indicates that the prickly pears are sweet and ready for harvest.

Here are some questions from the greenhorns at the prickly pear harvest:

What is prickly pear?

Prickly pear is the common name of a cactus that is native to the Americas. The edible fruit is a result of the cactus flower. Care must be taken when picking the prickley pear because of the plants sharp spines, a common feature of cactus plants.

When to pick prickly pear fruit?

Picking prickly pears is best done in the late summer when the fruit has turned to a deep magenta color and has no green remaining.

Is a prickly pear a fruit?

Yes, prickly pear is a fruit from the prickly pear cactus. They are called “spiny figs” on the island of Malta, and elsewhere around the world they are called “figs,” although they are not related to that fruit native to the Middle East and western Asia.

Prickly pear cactus grows throughout the Tanque Verde Ranch, but you’ll see more vibrant color on the prickly pear fruit on the grounds near the front lawn and surrounding buildings. That’s because those plants get more water.

Prickly pears on cactus paddles

How to Harvest Prickly Pear Fruit

The fruit grows on the highest paddles (or nopales) of the prickly pear and these were the size of small kiwi fruit. White spots on the prickly pear look like fungus, but it’s actually the residue of a small bug that burrows into the green cactus paddles. A natural dye is made from the tunneling insects and is used in textiles, pharmaceuticals and other products. The bug dye produces crimson and scarlet colors. We had to be careful not to touch the fruit in an effort to avoid the annoying cactus spikes, but also to dodge staining our fingers with deep reddish purple.

Although the micro spines that cover the fruit and paddles are extremely irritating, they will eventually work themselves out of your skin if you happen to get a few in your fingers, arms or legs while harvesting. Of course, long pants and sleeves would help protect you from the irritation. It is also wise to watch for snakes and bring water, a hat and sunscreen when going out to harvest prickly pear fruit.

Twisting tuna with tongs

The secret to how to harvest prickly pear? We picked the ripe fruit by twisting the tuna slightly with the tongs to break it off the paddle. We picked one fruit at a time to fill our galvanized buckets that we carried with us as we meandered around the ranch situated in the Sonoran Desert.

Here’s a checklist for what you need when harvesting prickly pear fruit.

Buckets of prickly pears

Full buckets

In about one hour our buckets were full and heavy and we were ready to get out of the sun. Just before noon the other prickly pear foragers and I reconvened in one of the ranch’s commercial kitchens to help Executive Sous Chef Janet Hoogasian prepare the raw fruit pods. She will show us how to prepare a prickly pear.

Chef Janet Hoogasian
Executive Sous Chef Janet Hoogasian

Prickly Pear Margaritas

“Here at the ranch, we’re well known for our Prickly Pear Margaritas, so we have to pick a lot of prickly pears,” said the chef. “It takes about 35 pods to get one-third of a cup,” she said. Only one to two ounces of prickly pear juice will give you the vibrant color a margaritas or other drink.

35 pods = 1/3 cup juice

Harvested prickly pears

Chef Janet prepares the juice and sauces and freezes them for the rest of the year. Prickly pear taste is slightly sweet and fruity, but sugars – agave, honey, or cane sugar – are typically added to sweeten the wild food that is high in vitamin B, iron, amino acids and magnesium.

Spider on Prickly Pear

How to Prepare Prickly Pear Fruit

First, we placed the prickly pear pods into a large colander and sprayed all the bugs off with water using the sprayer on the sink. Then we rinsed the fruit under the water faucet and repeatedly swirled the heavy batch to take off the micro spikes. The fruit knocking against each other in the colander helps to rub off those prickly micro fibers.

[captionCutting Prickly Pears How to How to cut a prickly pear

This process doesn’t remove all the spikes, so we donned leather gloves over the typical disposal food service gloves so we could handle the spiky fruit.

How to Cut a Prickly Pear

On the cutting board, we sliced off the tips of the pods and then made a short incision into the tough skin to cut a slit from end to end. That allowed us to peel off the thick skin with the edge of the knife. Since the interior flesh is slippery, we had to take caution while extracting the juicy pulp.

Breaking down the fruit like this takes a lot of detailed knife work, but the end result is a ranch-made sauce or juice made without additives or preservatives. “You know exactly what went into it: time, effort and love,” smiled Chef Janet, who is part of the Gastronomic Union of Tucson.

Prickly Pears stewing

Simmering prickly pear juice is one step in how to prepare prickly pear

The skinned fruit went into a large pot, where we added a little water and set it on low heat to simmer. Soon, the aroma of plums rose from the simmering concoction while Chef Janet skimmed off cactus spikes that floated to the surface and stuck to the sides of the pot with a strainer ladle.

Besides being used as an important ingredient for margaritas, prickly pear juice is also used in the Tanque Verde Ranch’s BBQ sauce. “You can do all kinds of flavor profiles with prickly pear because of its mild flavor,” the chef explained. That day she added honey, a cinnamon stick and cloves to the cooking fruit to be used in the evening’s desert. “You can use it in shaved ice, a glaze for pork chops or an icing for a dessert that will have that awesome color. Prickly pear has a very light flavor, so you can add other things and take it up a notch.”

After simmering the fruit pulp, Chef Janet put it through a sieve and returned it to the pot to simmered some more. She repeated sieving several times to remove prickly pear needles and seeds. In the final stage, chef poured the reduction through cheesecloth. What she didn’t use for the evening’s desserts was frozen for later.

How to Harvest and Prepare Prickly Pear Fruit
Tanque Verde Ranch’s signature Prickly Pear Margarita

“We always think we have enough, but every year that I’ve been here, we run out by January,” laughed Denise, a banquet bartender who has worked at the ranch almost five years. Denise and another mixologist were demonstrating how to use prickly pear juice in cocktails in a session at the on-site Dog House Saloon after lunch. We sampled a Prickly Pear Mimosa, a Prickly Pear Whiskey Sour, a Cosmo that substituted the cranberry juice for what else, prickly pear, and of course the ranch’s signature Prickly Pear Margarita.

Join the Harvest

Take part in the second harvest happening August 23-26, 2018. Rates starting at $435/night includes:
• Arizona accommodations with three hearty meals daily
• specialty prickly pear menu items
• harvest prickly pears
• learn and partake in prickly pear processing
• prickly pear cooking demos
• prickly pear t-shirts for all guests
• supervised children’s program (ages 4-11)
• horseback trail riding and lessons
• scheduled breakfast rides and cowboy cookouts
• fishing, guided hikes, nature programs, mountain biking, bingo and many other family activities

Tanque Verde Ranch
14301 East Speedway
Tucson, Arizona, USA | 800-234-3833
www.tanqueverderanch.com

For Tanque Verde Ranch’s BBQ and margarita recipes go to www.tanqueverderanch.com/prickly-pear-recipes 

Have you tried any prickly pear recipes? Or have you tried Prickly Pear fruit, which is considered a superfood? Has this article inspired you to go out and do some desert foraging? If so, leave your comments below. We’d love to hear from you.

Why wait?

Check out room rates on Booking.com and book now by clicking here.

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What You Need for Harvesting Prickly Pear Fruit

You need to protect yourself and your loved ones when harvesting prickly pear. Harvesting the cactus fruit is easy peasy when your have the proper supplies. Here’s your checklist for what you need for harvesting prickly pear fruit.

What You Need for Preparing Prickly Pear Fruit - coming soon

As is common in the travel industry, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey was provided with accommodations, meals, and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the Arizona travel writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

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2 thoughts on “How to Harvest and Prepare Prickly Pear Fruit”

  1. This article was very helpful i harvested some prickly pears three days ago and did not know how to handle them to keep from getting the spikes in my hands or how to process the fruit to extract the juice thanks for the useful tips i would like to come for the harvest this year

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comments, PAtricia. Where do you live to harvest prickly pear fruit? Glad our How to harvest prickly pear fruit article was helpful to you. MAke sure to subscribe to the UNSTOPPABLE community (just below) to get more tips and tricks. Coming up: How to prepare jackfruit.

      Reply

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