Prickly Pear Jelly

One of my favorite things to do is to make jelly, especially jelly from wild fruit.  I thought I'd share my (fairly) painless method of making prickly pear cactus jelly-and yes, it is worth it.

Collecting the Fruit:
First you need to collect the fruit.  There are many varieties of prickly pear cactus, and as far as I know, both the fruit and pads are edible on all Western North American Opuntia species.  These are the flat, beaver-tail shaped cactus.  Not all of them produce a good fruit for eating though-I have a beautiful purple prickly pear in front of my house, but the fruit are too shriveled and dry to use.  You want to find some that are a deep purple-red in color, and are nice and plump (there are some varieties where the fruit is ripe when yellow or green, though none of these seem to grow wild in my area, so I am unfamiliar with them, or how well their fruit works for jelly).  The flesh should be firm, if the fruit dents without much pressure from you, it is probably getting too ripe to use.  The fruit is sweet and edible without cooking-but between the thorns and seeds, I prefer to juice it. 
You can collect the fruit from public lands-usually a small amount for personal use is permitted-though if you plan on selling the fruit or products (like jelly) check the regulations.  If collecting on private land, please get permission, and make sure no pesticides or herbicides have been used near the plant.  The time of year the fruit will be ready depends on the weather, the species and your location, but is usually ripe in late July through September.
This fruit comes from a cactus, which makes collecting and handling the it a bit difficult.  The big spines aren't the problem.  You can see and avoid those for the most part-it's the glochids that will make you crazy.  You know, the ones you don't know are stuck in you until you brush your hand against something.  They  don't hurt all that much, but finding them to pull them out? Good luck! (If you do get some in you, try pressing some duct tape down over the spot, then peeling it up.  This will pull up any loose ones, though if you have some that are in deeper, you'll need tweezers...and a magnifying glass.)
Yes, you can use gloves-but trust me, you'll get poked anyway, and you'll end up having to toss the gloves because the glochids get stuck in the gloves, and end up getting in you whenever you use them after that.  I've found the easiest way to get the fruit is to use some kitchen tongs.  They keep your hands out of the way of both the big spines and the glochids.  I suggest you put the fruit in a plastic bucket to further contain the spines.  If it's a bucket you want to use again, you'll need to hose it out, then use something abrasive to get rid of all the spines.  A better idea is to ask your bakery if they have any buckets they are going to toss, some of their frosting and dough comes in buckets.  I've even picked up some at Dairy Queen before.  Then you can just recycle the bucket when you are done.

It's always best to use the fruit as soon as possible, though you can probably store it in a cool place for a few days.  Again you need to deal with the glochids-getting some of these in your mouth or throat would not be fun.  Some traditional methods of getting rid of the spines are to roll the fruit in sand, or singe the spines with flame.  I've tried burning off the spines using a candle, but it was time consuming, and it turns out that if you are making jelly, you don't need to remove the spines. After rinsing the fruit with a strong spray of water, I use tongs and a knife to cut each fruit in half.  I put several layers of cheesecloth in the food basket and place the fruit inside.  It helps to clothespin the cheesecloth in place until all the fruit is in the basket.  I've found that you can steam the fruit whole, but it helps to cut the fruit at least once, though you don't need to cut it up much.  I also put a few layers of cheesecloth around the end of the hose to catch any spare glochids that may come through.  The less you disturb the fruit once it is in the basket, the fewer glochids will be released. Follow the instructions from the steamer manual from here.  You'll know you are done when the fruit stops releasing juice.  You can press the fruit at this point if you want, but I don't usually get enough juice to make it worth it.  With most fruits, the jelly looks much clearer and prettier if you don't press the fruit, and I don't want to press any glochids through the cheesecloth with the cactus fruits.
(A few tricks: put a bottle in a drawer next to the stove to catch drips, and so you don't have to handle a hot jar of juice.  Another trick is to put a few marbles in the water pan-they will start to rattle when the water level gets too low, so you can avoid boiling the pan dry-which is bad...Very bad.)

If you don't have a juicer, place the fruits whole into a pot, bring to a boil, and boil for ten minutes.  Mash with a potato masher, then boil for another ten minutes.  Pour juice out through cheesecloth to strain. 

Making Jelly:
Once you have the juice you can make jelly immediately, or you can freeze the juice to make it later.  Find a recipe from a reliable source such as a university extension office or official canning website like Ball or Kerr.  Jelly is a little safer to experiment with than other canning foods, but you don't want to risk wasting your work on something that is potentially dangerous to eat.  Recipes from these sources have been tested for safety.
It always helps if the little ones don't get tired of you cooking and try to push you out of the kitchen.

 This recipe is from Preserving Food in Wyoming: Wild Berries and Other Wild Fruit by the University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, p. 23.  You can find the entire publication here.

Prickly Pear Jelly
3 cups of cactus juice (made from approximately 12 cups ripe cactus fruit)
½ cup lemon juice
1 package of powdered pectin
4½ cups of sugar
Jelly bag or three layers of cheesecloth
Mix cactus juice and lemon juice with powdered pectin. Place over high heat and stir until the mixture comes to a rolling boil. Add sugar, bring to a vigorous boil again, and boil for 1½ minutes stirring constantly. Remove from heat, skim off any foam, and pour quickly into hot half-pint or pint jars or hot sterilized half-pint or pint jars leaving ¼-inch headspace. Wipe sealing edge of jars with a clean, damp paper towel. Adjust lids and process in a boiling-water canner, for 10 minutes, adjusting processing time for altitude.  For good instructions on using the water bath canning method, and a chart for adjusting processing times, go here.

If you'd like to make syrup instead of jelly, just omit the pectin, and follow the directions as listed above.


  1. I'm trying to make jelly. I have tried twice and failed. I was going to try a third time, but I wondering if the tunas are too ripe. It is mid November. Is that the problem?

    1. I'm not sure, but I think the ripeness shouldn't be a factor-I've made it with some nearly overripe fruit before. You can try putting it back into a pot and re-boiling it, sometimes a higher water content will keep jellies from setting unless boiled a bit longer. If that seems like a lot of fuss (it is), the syrup is lovely on pancakes, crepes and waffles.
      Since you've tried this twice, you might have a variety that needs a little extra pectin. I'm afraid only experimenting will tell you how much more pectin you'd need, maybe start with an extra 1/4 packet or 1/2 packet and see what happens. Good luck!