Prickly pear jelly is a real treat, and lets you have a taste of the dessert anywhere in the world. The fruit have a distinctive taste that’s hard to describe, warm and earthy but also a bit tropical.
I grew up picking prickly pears in my grandfather’s backyard for fun. We’d play with them, but I never knew you could eat them. I don’t come from a family of cooks, let alone jelly makers. The first time I made prickly pear jelly I was already living clear across the country in the northeast, far from the land of cactus.
Even up here in Vermont, grocery stores will often carry prickly pears as a novelty, next to the dragon fruit and kiwano melons. They keep surprisingly well, and I’ll admit I forgot about these prickly pears on the counter for 2 weeks before I started a batch of prickly pear jelly, but they were still good as the day they were picked inside.
Start by peeling the prickly pears. The skin is a distinct layer on the outside and it comes away easily. Cut off the top and bottom, and then slice through the exterior peel lengthwise. From there, gently peel away the outside peel. Here’s a pictorial tutorial on peeling prickly pear if you need it. Once they’re peeled, slice them into smaller pieces before placing them in a saucepan with water to cover.
Simmer the prickly pear fruits in water for about an hour, adding water as needed to cover. Occasionally stir and use a spoon to try to break up the fruits and increase the surface area. That helps extract the juice.
After an hour, pour the prickly pear pulp and juice through a fine mesh strainer. You should have around 1/2 cup of juice for each fruit. It’s important to note that the pH of prickly pear juice is way too high for canning, and you’ll need to add quite a bit of lemon juice to bring it into a safe range for canning.
If you’re not canning the prickly pear jelly, don’t worry about it. Add a few tablespoons for flavor since acid will help bring out the flavor of the fruit, but there’s no need to drastically increase the acidity for a fridge preserve.
Add 1/2 cup of lemon juice or 2 teaspoons citric acid for every cup of prickly pear juice. This is important, and prickly pear jelly is not safe for canning without either lemon juice or citric acid added.
Measure the juice and add 1 cup of sugar for each cup of juice. I’ve seen some recipes calling for as much as 3 cups of sugar per cup of juice, and I find that toxically sweet. A single cup is already very sweet, bordering on cloying and I can’t see adding more. If you have a serious sweet tooth, maybe consider adding more, but be sure to taste it first.
Pour the juice and most of the sugar back into a saucepan and bring it to a boil on the stove once again. Save about 1/4 to 1/2 of a cup of sugar to the side to mix with the pectin (if you’re using powdered pectin).
Simmer the juice and sugar for about 5 minutes before adding pectin. Prickly pears don’t contain their own pectin, and if you want a jelly it has to be added. Otherwise, you just have prickly pear syrup, which is tasty in its own right.
I’m using Pomona’s Universal Pectin to thicken this batch of prickly pear jelly, and it’s added in powdered form which lets you easily scale up and down based on batch size. It’s also not dependent on sugar to gel, which makes it great for low sugar jams.
This isn’t a low sugar recipe by any stretch of the imagination, but if you do want to make a low sugar prickly pear jelly using 1/2 or even 1/4 cup of sugar to a cup of juice it’ll work with this pectin.
For Pomona’s pectin, I add 1/2 tsp powdered pectin and 1/2 tsp calcium water (included with pectin package) for every cup of juice. The pectin powder needs to be mixed with a tiny bit of sugar, and I always try to remember to save 1/4 cup off to the side to mix in the pectin powder. Often enough I forget, and the batch gets another 1/4 cup of sugar…so it goes.
For other types of pectin, most consider a “batch” of jelly to be 4 cups of juice, and a tube of liquid pectin thickens will that much liquid, but be sure to check the instructions on the type you’re using.
After adding pectin, simmer the prickly pear jelly for about 2 more minutes to help activate the pectin. At that point, it’s time to pour it into prepared canning jars. Fill the jars to within 1/4 inch of the top and seal with 2 part canning lids.
Process prickly pear jelly in a boiling water bath canner for 10 minutes, ensuring that the tops of the lids are at least 1 inch below the water line. Remove the jars from the canner and allow them to cool completely before checking seals.
Store any unsealed jars in the refrigerator for immediate use. Sealed jars will keep at room temperature, and maintain good quality for 12-18 months.
A simple prickly pear jelly preserves these beautiful cactus fruits for year-round eating.
- 4 cups prickly pear juice, from about 8-10 fruits
- 2 cups lemon juice
- 4 cups sugar
- 2 tsp pomona's pectin powder
- 2 tsp calcium water, included with pectin powder
- Peel and chop prickly pear fruits. Add them to a saucepan with enough water to cover. Simmer for about 1 hour, adding more water to keep them covered.
- Pour the fruit through a fine mesh strainer and measure the resulting juice. You should have about 4 cups of juice from 8-10 fruits.
- For every cup of juice, add 1/2 cup lemon juice and 1 cup sugar. Reserve a small amount of sugar about 1/4 to 1/2 cup for mixing with the pectin powder.
- Add calcium water and bring the sugar/juice mixture to a boil. Simmer for about 5 minutes.
- Mix the pectin powder with the remaining sugar. This is important because added on its own the pectin will clump instantly on contact with a liquid. Stir in the pectin/sugar mixture and simmer for another 2 minutes.
- Pour the prickly pear jelly into prepared canning jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace.
- Store jars in the refrigerator, or process in a water bath canner for 10 minutes.
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