What Is Prickly Pear? All About This Sweet Fruit

We're outlining how to choose and prepare this honey-sweet fruit.  

A good prickly pear is ridiculously delicious, and although they're native to the Americas—and a staple in Mexico—prickly pear remains a little-enjoyed and rather intimidating fruit here in the U.S. We say seek it out: In countries where prickly pear fruits are plentiful, they are a much-anticipated, honey-sweet, and succulent treat, sold by the side of the road and in markets and stores with other produce. They hold no fear or mystery for the people who grew up eating them. Within the cactus genus to which it belongs—Opuntia—there are many species of prickly pear, but the type that you'll most often see in the produce section of the supermarket is usually the fruit of Opuntia ficus-indica. They are also commonly known as cactus pears, tuna in Spanish, and figue de Barbary in French (they grow in naturalized thickets in coastal North Africa, which used to be known by Europeans as the Barbary Coast).

prickly pear fruits
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These commercial prickly pears grow on a shrub-sized cactus. The fruit grows directly from its cladodes—these are technically flattened stems, not leaves, and the so-called cactus paddles or pads of the plant. The other edible part of the prickly pear is the nopal, the young paddle, essentially a segment of the flattened stems. Nopales are eaten as a vegetable. Another titbit of esoterica is that natural red food coloring relies on prickly pears: The color is extracted from the cochineal, a scale insect pest of the cactus.

How to Choose Prickly Pears

Ripe prickly pears may be red, green, or pale yellow—unlike other fruits, a green prickly pear does not mean that it is unripe. The fruit is at its best when it is very plump, rotund, heavy for its size, and with a perfectly smooth skin. Any wrinkling towards the stem end means the prickly pears were harvested a very long time ago and will have a disappointingly mushy texture. When selecting the fruit, use a pincer movement, holding it between thumb and middle finger. Its blunt end and stem-extremity are free of spines. These hair-like bristles are called glochids, and they are an intense irritation when lodged in your skin. Always handle the fruit using this crab-claw move, and you'll be just fine.

Ripe prickly pears are intensely sweet with a distinctive flavor all their own. They are very juicy and are filled with seeds. There is no way to avoid these, so if you are someone who will only eat seedless grapes, this fruit will be a challenge. But the seeds are easily and happily swallowed and do no harm.

How to Prepare Prickly Pear

To prepare prickly pears for eating, first chill them in the refrigerator—they are always best cold. To spare your fingers from the pesky glochids, secure the prickly pear on a work surface by spearing it in the middle with a fork. Slice off each end with a sharp knife. Slit the thick, fleshy skin from top to bottom. Using a second fork or a knife, push the skin from the fruit and roll the naked fruit free. The glove-tight skin should come off easily from a ripe prickly pear. Keep the peeled interior resting on its skin and off the work surface in case loose glochids have been shed. Next, slice and gobble it up. Or you can be patient and peel some more fruit, slice them, dress them with a squeeze of lime, and serve for dessert.

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