Saturday, September 1, 2012

Prickly Pear Pioneers: Canning Tucson-Style

When my friend Amanda called to ask if I would be interested in harvesting and canning prickly pear jam and syrup with her, I was ecstatic! Not only have I been wanting to learn how to can this year (see my long, mostly uncompleted list of "Amish" goals for this year), but I have also had a keen interest in learning to cook something with the prickly pears I've seen in the grocery stores around town. You know, to cross it off my Tucson bucket list, so to speak.

We've been planning to do this for a few weeks and today was the day! 

Squire got me pumped by playing The Jungle Book's, "Bare Necessities" song for me this morning because of the tongue-twister line in the song about prickly pear picking (start at about 1:22 for the infamous line):

Amanda, our friend Allison and I all headed out around 8:00 am this morning to harvest prickly pears together. We left the kidlets with their daddies, so we could harvest and can without distractions. :)
Crazily excited for this new adventure.
We picked the fruit from the cacti around our neighborhood and in the desert patch near where we live. We made sure to get a nice mix of both the purple and fuschia-red ones. (Supposedly the purple ones help the jam set better.) The fruit was much more tender than I expected.

Prickly Pear Cacti.
We used leather garden gloves and tongs to pluck them from the cactus leaves. Despite out best efforts, we still got pricked by pokey needles through our gloves, but they weren't terribly painful.

Prickly pear picking at 26 weeks pregnant.
A happy picker.
 We harvested about 3, 5-gallon buckets of prickly pears - not quite filled to the top.

To de-prickle them, we rinsed them in hot water first, and then in cold water with a little scrubbing second. We passed them down our assembly line with tongs. 
Prickly pears undergoing their first rinse.

After their rinsing, I cut the pears in half (holding them still with tongs) as they were not 100% de-pricklyed, even after the rinsing. (Some methods call for burning off the pokeys, and then peeling off the outside skin. We thought the rinsing and straining would be an easier and less risky approach.) We put them in our biggest stock pots, with just enough water to cover the bottoms of the pots, and boiled them on medium-high for about 20-30 minutes, or until they were easy to mash.

Rinsed and halved prickly pears ready to be boiled. They look Pomegranate-esque, don't you think?

Here is Amanda, our ring leader and experienced prickly pear canner, mashing up the cooked prickly pears with a potato masher. **Cool fact: Did you know that the fruit of the prickly pear is called Tuna?** Yeah, I didn't know before today either!

Mashing the boiled tuna!
 We then triple-strained the juice from the mashed pears to insure that the juice would be prickle-free.

Mashing the prickly pears in the colander, for the first rough strain.
Straining the juice through the finest strainer for the third and final time.
Our 15 gallons of prickly pears yielded 40 cups of prickly pear juice. We decided to do half as syrup and half as jelly.

We brought the strained juice to a boil, then added half of the sugar and all the pectin needed for each recipe, as well as the lemon juice. After stirring that all in very well, we added the rest of the sugar. 

After bringing the concoctions to a boil again, we set the syrup aside to cool down, and skimmed the foam from off the top of the jelly mixture:

Skimming the foam from the jelly mixture.
We then ladled the hot jelly mixture into glass jars freshly sterilized and hot from the dishwasher. We lidded them, and set them aside to set up.

Our beautiful finished product.
 We then ladled the syrup into other jars and Ziploc quart-sized freezer bags, to freeze and save to add to lemonade, pancake syrup, or other recipes later.

Our cheeks are a little rosy and we are all a bit shiny from working for 5 hours in a hot kitchen together, but we got so much accomplished! We canned about 40 cups of Prickly pear jelly, and about 38 cups of Prickly pear syrup between the three of us.

Happy to be done!
We all agreed that we liked how sugary and sweet the jam was, but we would probably cut the sugar down by a 1/4 or 1/2 of what we did for the syrup next time around. Here are the recipes we used:

Prickly Pear Jelly Recipe (We did a 4x of this recipe)

5 cups juice
5 cups sugar
5 tsp. lemon juice
2 packages Pectin

Prickly Pear Syrup Recipe (We did a 2x of this recipe)
10 cups juice
10 cups sugar
¾ cup lemon juice
1 package Pectin

Let me know if you try canning your own prickly pear jelly or syrup, too! 
I totally recommend it - especially if your friends are as hard-working, and awesome as mine are. :)
Happy September, everyone! I hope you all have a fantastic Labor Day weekend.


  1. Jeff said he won't post a bad comment about how the husbands thought we just sat back and didn't do anything, because now he can see the documented proof :)Thanks for joining me on the great adventure. Oh, and the jars have been popping all afternoon. That means they are sealing properly! Now, fingers grossed that the jelly actually sets.

    1. Awesome! At a minimum at least we know we won't die from eating what ever ends up setting or not setting in those jars. *My fingers, toes, and eyes are still crossed that the jelly does set!* Haha. I know I'm a dork. :) And, I wish I could think of something snarky to say in response to Jeff's possible bad comment, but I'm still too worn out from today's work to think of anything witty. Oh well! Cheesecake tonight to celebrate!!

  2. hello, is it true that prickly pear cactus is not recommended while pregnant? can you explain? thanks.

    1. I had never heard that prickly pear cactus was a no-no in pregnancy, so I definitely consumed some while I was pregnant with my daughter! Here is the link from WedMD: It basically says that not enough is known about its effects and so it should be avoided.

  3. Curious as to how the syrup turned out.

    1. The syrup turned out really well, just a bit too sweet was all! (But some might prefer that?) We still enjoyed it over pancakes and stirred in with lemonade for a nice Summer time beverage. All the jars sealed, but the jelly did not set up enough for our liking. So we actually went back and re-processed. We opened all the jelly jars reheated their contents and added more pectin and they set up well with that reprocessing. Prickly pear has a really distinct and delicious flavor. Great seasonal activity to do in the desert - makes great Christmas gifts for family as well.

    2. Just saw your post here about your jellies not setting up. You may want to read my post about our making of prickly pear jellies.



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