Life is really good when Mother Nature just hands you something super special for nothing. Here in the Sonoran Desert, and much of the desert southwest, in midsummer to early fall, we’re harvesting prickly pears to make prickly pear jelly right out of the dry, hot, and spiny wild. Mother Nature just hands them to us with only a few stickers attached.
Native Americans used the whole of the prickly pear cactus for food, medicine, needles, and water. Most of the plant is still eaten today. The green pads are used to make nopales and the fruit, called tunas, are used to make jelly, jam, marmalade, juice, syrup, candy, vinaigrette, and even margaritas. Some people pick, peel, and eat them right off the cactus. My mom freezes the juice in ice trays and drops a few cubes in iced tea for a unique, refreshing, and healthful drink. Of course, you can drink the juice on its own, as well.
Prickly Pear Jelly – The Flavor of Arizona
Prickly pears are super nutritious, high in antioxidants, and their juice is said to help lower blood sugar, cholesterol, and fight inflammation. Yes, sure, they do all that, but we’re here to talk about jelly. Jelly is not exactly a health food, but it’s so good on top of a slice of toast or a biscuit slathered in butter, right? Right? And, prickly pears with their unique flavor and gorgeous garnet color are one of the things visitors to our great state, (and other parts of the southwest), tend never to forget. That and the Grand Canyon and, of course, Sedona. People remember Sedona. You can’t eat Sedona, though. If you ask someone what the flavor of Arizona is, they’ll say prickly pear. (If they don’t, they should.)
We should put the prickly pear cactus on the Arizona state flag – except that Mexico already did that. It should be listed in encyclopedias (remember those things) alongside the Cactus Wren, our state bird, and the Saguaro Blossom, our state flower. Too bad Texas already named the prickly pear cactus their state plant. We should’ve done it first. When artists paint giant murals depicting Arizona’s copper mines, mighty Saguaros, cotton fields, and migrant workers, they should paint a jar of prickly pear jelly in there, too. Actually, they should paint it with wings and a bunch of stars floating around it like it came from heaven, because it did.
And, what does it taste like, you ask? I know “heaven” is a vague term. Some people say it has a watermelon flavor to it. I can’t taste watermelon in it. I can only taste prickly pear. It’s a taste like no other. It’s indescribable. You just have to try it. You won’t be disappointed.
My grandmother introduced our family to prickly pear cactus jelly back in the 1970s. She found a recipe for it in the old Phoenix Gazette and was consequently enamored by the desert fruit. She was from Vermont and loved Arizona. Prickly pear jelly was the perfect vehicle for her to share that love with her family back home and those of us lucky enough to live just down the street from her.
Every year, towards summer’s end, we’d trek out into the desert around Kearny with our trusty tongs and closed-toe shoes to fill buckets with the juicy red fruit. (Kearny is the small mining town in southeastern Arizona where I grew up.) Afterwards, we’d stand around the kitchen stove holding the prickly pears with our trusty tongs over a high flame to burn off their stickers (glochids). This burning is the tedious part of making this jelly and one part a lot of jelly-makers skip.
How to Harvest Prickly Pear Juice
There are many ways to skin a cat and a prickly pear. For instance, a lot of people just rub them in the dirt to get the glochids off. Or, they wash and scrub them with a green scrubby. Or, they just throw them in a pot and boil them without removing the glochids at all. Some people wear thick gloves and peel their pears, thus removing the stickers at the same time. I feel like peeling wastes too much of the fruit and I haven’t tried any of the other methods. So, I burn my stickers, just like Gram taught us to.
My mom juices her prickly pears by placing them whole, stickers and all, in a Jack LaLanne juicer. That particular juicer may be out of production, but there are others that will do the same job. This seems like the ideal solution as It filters out the skin, seeds, and the stickers leaving nothing but pure, fresh juice. She says the seeds, which are like little rocks, are very hard on the juicer, though. So, use caution if you choose that route to harvest your juice.
Here are the steps I use to get my prickly pear juice:
- Gather ripe prickly pears using tongs and a hard bucket. They’ll be deep red and separate from the plant easily, if they’re ripe. A gallon of fruit will produce about 4 cups of juice.
- Burn spines and glochids off the fruit using metal tongs to briefly hold the fruit over a flame on a gas stove. A blow torch, campfire, or barbecue grill may also be used. Don’t burn the fruit. You can also use any of the methods mentioned above to de-sticker your fruit.
- Wearing thick gloves, cut both ends from the prickly pears. Then, slice them in half and place in a deep pot with about an inch of water. Cook on low to medium heat. Stir often to keep from burning. Eventually, the juice will nearly cover the prickly pears.
- Smash the cooked fruit in the pot with a potato masher.
- Ladle fruit and juice into a sieve or colander lined with two sheets of damp cheesecloth placed over a saucepan or large bowl and allow to drain. This will filter out any spines and glochids left on the fruit, as well as the skin and seeds. Resist the temptation to squeeze the juice out or you could turn it cloudy. A little squeeze should be alright. Just don’t get carried away.
The Prickly Pear Jelly Recipe
I’ve spent many days and hours trying different prickly pear jelly recipes, including the one my grandmother used, with little success. Jelly can be tricky. Especially, jellies made with fruit that have little to no pectin or acid in them. Prickly pears are very low in both. I’m sure my grandmother tweaked her recipe. In fact, I know she did. Unfortunately, I never asked her how she tweaked it. I just assumed she’d always be here and thus, so would the jelly.
After doing a lot of experimentation resulting in many jars of syrup I finally hit on a successful formula. I tried recipes that called for lemon juice to raise the acidity and help with gelling to no avail. I tried recipes with more sugar or less sugar. More sugar is better. I use a ratio of 1.25 cups of sugar per cup of juice. I tried recipes with one box of pectin or two. Two seems to be the ticket. I used a candy thermometer and found it pretty much useless. Timing the rolling boil for one minute and then using the sheeting test to see when the gelling had started worked the best for me.
Enjoy your jelly! Let me know how it turns out!