Prickly pear jelly on toast.
American, Southwestern

How to Make Prickly Pear Jelly

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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.

Prickly pear cactus bearing fruit.
Prickly pear cactus bearing fruit known as tunas.

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.

Desert Fruit

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!

Prickly Pear Cactus Jelly

4 from 6 votes
Recipe by Kim Scott Course: Condiments, SweetsCuisine: SouthwesternDifficulty: Moderate
Servings

80

servings
Calories

53

kcal
Serving Size

1

Tablespoon

One gallon of whole prickly pears should net about 4 cups of juice. Four cups of juice should give you about 5 – 6 eight ounce jars of jelly. Don’t double the recipe. Make it in batches of 4 cups at a time.

Ingredients

Directions

  • Wash prickly pears and remove spines and glochids by either burning them using tongs to hold fruit over a gas flame or scrubbing them off with water and a green scrubby. (Wear thick gloves if scrubbing!)
  • Prepare canning jars by boiling them for, at least, 10 minutes in a large stockpot or metal canner fitted with a canning rack or something to keep the jars off the bottom of the pan. Wash jar lids and rims in hot soapy water, rinse, and set aside.
  • Slice off both ends of prickly pear and discard. (Use gloves no matter the method you used to take the glochids and spines off the fruit. Inevitably, you will miss some.) Cut fruit in half lengthwise and put in a large pot with approximately 1 cup of water. Cook over low medium heat, stirring frequently, until prickly pears are soft and juice has nearly or completely covered them. Mash fruit with potato masher.
  • Ladle fruit and juice into a colander or sieve lined with two layers of damp cheesecloth placed over large bowl or saucepan and allow to drain. While draining, place a few metal spoons and/or a saucer in the freezer.
  • Place four cups of juice into a 4 quart or bigger saucepan. (Bigger would be better, because when the syrup starts to boil it rises to the top of the pan.) Stir in two boxes of commercial pectin, making sure there are no lumps. Bring to a boil while stirring.
  • Add 5 cups of sugar and stir constantly. Ensure there are no lumps of sugar.
  • Bring mixture up to a hard boil that cannot be stirred down. Stir constantly. After one minute test mixture with a cold spoon from the freezer by scooping up some of the syrup in the spoon and tilting the spoon to the side to allow the mixture to run back into the saucepan. If it’s still runny, keep cooking, and keep testing. Cook until the drops coming off a new cold spoon congeal into one large drop and the jelly slides off the spoon.
  • Using canning jar lifter, place hot jars from canner on a towel on the counter. Ladle the jelly immediately into the hot jars leaving 1/4 inch headspace at the top of the jar. Using a wide mouth funnel will make filling the jars much easier. Wipe the rims of the jars to ensure there is no jelly spilled on them and place a jar lid on top of each jar. Screw jar bands onto jars over lids tightening just until you meet resistance.
  • Again, using canning jar lifter, place jars back into canner with still boiling water and ensure the water covers the jars by one to two inches. Boil the jars of jelly for five minutes or by the time indicated in the chart in the pectin directions based on your elevation. (In Phoenix, we are just over 1000 feet in elevation and so here we must boil our jars for 10 minutes.)
  • Turn off the heat and allow jars to rest in the water bath for 5 minutes. Then, remove them and place them on a towel on the counter or other sturdy surface and allow to cool. Do not disturb them.
  • Once cool test jars to see if the lids have sealed by pressing down in the center of the lid. If the lid pops when pressed, it is not sealed and should be stored in the refrigerator and used within a few weeks. Sealed jars can be stored in a cool, dark place for up to 18 months.

Notes

  • Be sure to place the jars on a towel after removing from water bath to keep them from cracking due to the difference in the temperature between the jars and the countertops.
  • If you’re a little short on the four cups of juice, you can add up to 1/2 cup of water to make up for it.
  • If you get a glochid stuck in your skin and can’t get it out, cover it with white school glue. After the glue has dried, peel it off. The glochid should come out in the glue.
  • Calorie information is approximate and is based on online calculators.

6 Comments

  1. Pingback: Is Eating a Fluffernutter Sandwich a Sin? - Traveling In My Kitchen

  2. I’ve had your Moms prickly pear juice before so Can imagine this jelly does taste like heaven! It looks delicious in the photo!

  3. This is well worth the work and it is addicting. We used to make this a family project. Kim you have made this very clear for people to follow. Beautiful work

  4. This jelly is absolutely delicious!

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