Low Sugar Prickly Pear Jelly Recipe

Few plants have as many uses as the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica). In our climate it grows like a weed, with no supplemental irrigation, and produces a voluminous amount of edible pads and fruit. In addition to food, Opuntia provides medicinal compounds, a hair conditioner, building materials and habitat for the red dye producing cochineal scale insect. As for the fruit, you can consume it raw, dry it or make jelly. Several years ago I posted a recipe for prickly pear jelly. But the large amount of sugar in that recipe, in my opinion, covered up the subtle taste of the fruit. I’ve concocted a new prickly pear jelly using low-sugar pectin that substantially reduces the amount of sugar.

Low Sugar Prickly Pear Jelly
4 cups prickly pear juice (requires around four pounds of fruit)
1/2 cup lemon juice
3 cups sugar
1 package low sugar pectin (1.75 ounces)

1. Burn off the spines by holding the fruit over a burner on the stove for a few seconds.
2. Quarter the fruit and place in a pot. Cover with water (around 2 1/2 cups). Boil for ten minutes. Crush the fruit with a potato masher.  Update 12/5/2012: I now recommend using a food mill, though the boiling technique also works. See our post on using a food mill to juice prickly pear fruit.
3. Strain through two sheets of cheesecloth placed in a colander. Gather up the corners of the cheesecloth and give the pulp a squeeze to extract as much juice as you can.
4. Pour four cups of the prickly pear juice into a pot and add a half cup of lemon juice.
5. Mix a quarter cup of the sugar and a package of low/no sugar pectin and add to the juice.
6. Bring the mixture to a full boil.
7. Add the remaining sugar and bring back to a full boil. Boil for one minute, stirring constantly.
8. Pour into six 8 oz jars.
9. Process in a boiling water bath for ten minutes.

Prickly pear fruit (called “tuna” in Mexico) come in a variety of colors. My plants make an orange fruit that matures in August. I love the taste of the fresh fruit, but it’s a bit of an acquired taste due to the abundant seeds and the nasty spines (technically called glochids).

Unlike a lot of jelly recipes floating around the interwebs, I guarantee that this one works. It basically follows the ratios and instructions for red raspberry jelly as detailed in the Sure Jell pectin box. In my experience with jam and jelly recipes, sticking with the directions in the pectin box yields consistent results. And stay tuned for a video I shot on how to make this jelly.

Update: Green Roof Grower Bruce wrote to suggest using Pomonas Universal Pectin to reduce the sugar level of this recipe even further. I’m going to give it a try. In the meantime the folks behind Pomona’s have a very similar recipe for prickly pear jelly that uses less sugarhere (pdf).
Update 8/28/2010:  I tried the Pomonas Universal Pectin prickly pear jelly recipe linked to above. It works, and uses one cup less sugar than my recipe above. The color is also more vibrant due to the larger percentage of fruit. However, both Mrs. Homegrown and Homegrown Neighbor found the more gelatinous consistency of the Pomonas prickly pear jelly objectionable. Verdict: for now I’m going to stick with SureJell or equivalent.

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91 Comments

  1. Here we get nice red tuna that are ripe for the picking in October. Because of the large amount of sugar for jelly – and since all our family is over 2000 miles away and who wants to mail glass! – I switched to making prickly pear fruit leather. Has been a big hit, especially with the kids as they see it as a candy treat they can have anytime. Follow the basic directions for getting out the juice and then mix with applesauce (natural pectin, and helps the leather stay together). a little lemon juice and sugar to taste – probably less than a cup here. It has a nice tang and color and even holds its own when other fruits are added.

  2. Here in Mexico, the orange ones are the most difficult to find and the most valued ones, in my experience, I prefer their flavor, although I have to say I love the fruit in all of its colors, thanks for the recipe, just in time for tuna season.

  3. David,

    Do you know anything about pruning nopale? I’ve been trying to find someone who knows. Clearly there’s a way to maximize either pad or tuna production but I haven’t figured it out. Hoping to meet someone from Mexico who farms them someday. It’s just about my favorite plant.

  4. I have 12 jars of prickly pear jelly cooling in my kitchen right now. I used your lower sugar recipe and I love the delicate flavor of the ‘tuna’. The little sample I put in the fridge jelled beautifully so I think the rest of the batch will be great too. Thanks for posting your recipe. I had never tasted prickly pear jelly til now. I’ll be doing this every year.
    :-)

  5. I am putting the prickley pears through a juicer and the juice coming out seems like it has natural pectin in it, it is very thick. Can you make cold stirred prickly pear jelly or jam?

  6. @Anonymous:

    Erik and I have consulted on this. We don’t think that thickness in the juice has anything to do w. pectin. It’s likely the natural mucilaginous texture of the cactus.

    Not sure what you mean by “cold-stirred” — we’ve not heard that term before–but to make jelly or jam out of cactus fruit juice we’re pretty certain you’d need to use pectin, either in box form or perhaps by mixing your juice w. apples.

  7. Dear Mrs. Homegrown,
    :) I’ve recruited some friends and we’re heading to my mother-in-laws ranch in south texas this weekend to try our hand at this yummy jelly; so I’ve been doing a TON of research.
    Some of the research says I should “parafin wax” seal the top of the jelly…With the jars / lids today; do I still need to do this?

    Also, I’m hoping to make these in 2oz jars as a favor for a wedding reception…Is this fool-hardy and nieve for some reason?

    :) Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience- Katie K ([email protected])

  8. Hey Katie,

    I’ve never used a wax seal. It’s an old technique that’s no longer recommended for food safety reasons as the seal can fail. I’ve only used canning jars with this recipe, though you could pack them in 2 oz jars and tell people to use it or refrigerate immediately. The lemon juice and sugar in the recipe will make a jelly that lasts a long time in the fridge. Try a small test batch first. Good luck.

  9. Hey there,

    I tried out this recipe and was pleased with the results, however still VERY sweet. But all in all good. As an alternative to burning off the glochids, i’ve found that 2 minutes in boiling water and then an ice bath enables efficient peeling of the fruit. I hear that the peel has a good deal of pectin which might aid in the congealing…but i didn’t find a significant difference. i’m about to try an even lower sugar recipe-will let you know how it turns out. :)

  10. I am trying this for the first time. My juice is really thick and mucus like is this right? Slimy too. I was thinking it would be more like fruit juice.

  11. Dumb question: When are the pears ready to be picked? It is now May and I would like to make some jelly in June (before I leave Texas). Any chance I can do it?

  12. @Anon: Sorry, there’s no way for us to answer this question. It will vary so much by plant, variety, region… Generally harvest is in the fall here where we live. We decide when to harvest by tasting the fruit.

    May seems early, but we don’t like to make generalizations about areas we don’t know. If it’s sweet enough, you can pick it for jelly. In our experience the best jelly–of any sort–is made with good ripe fruit–but with the help of sugar and cooking even crappy fruit can be made to work.

  13. Hello! I live in West Texas and I think our fruit is ripe. it is nice and big and a good deep red/magenta color, some of the fruit is still green though. I am going to try you jelly recipe sense we have six acres and tons of natural prickly pear.

  14. Recipe says 1 package low sugar pectin.

    I bought 4.7 oz jar (Ball, low or no-sugar needed pectin).

    Can you help me to figure out how much pectin I should use per 4 cups Prickly Pear juice? 1 tbls?

  15. I followed the recipe to the letter and for some reason my jelly didn’t set. It’s still runny. I have another batch or fruit and will try again. The unset jelly makes wonderful syrup for pancakes though so it’s not a loss. I’m going to try again this weekend and hopefully it works out.

  16. To Anonymous (above)
    If you use Sure-Jell brand Pectin, there are instructions in the box on what to do if your cooked jelly doesn’t gel. My first batch of jelly ended up like syrup, too. I followed the directions in the leaflet inside the Sure-Jell box to the letter, and re-cooked my runny jelly and it came out very nice and firm. I’ve been making prickly pear jams, jellies and syrups for the past week and I now have about 45 8-ounce jars put up, with enough raw juice left in the fridge to do another 8 to 12 jars. I started with 20 pounds of tunas, for what it’s worth.

  17. Im in west texas and made a batch of 6 jars using a simlar recipe 4 years ago. I opened up my last jar this morning and its still as good as it was at the begining. My first batch of jelly I ever made. I sterilized the heck out of the jars and lids. I looked out today and noticed all the great pears ripe for picking and decided to look up the recipe. (picked about 7 lbs) This one looks great. Does anyone know how long jellys can last like this?

  18. I have made Cactus Jelly from red and yellow tunas(I call them apples). Anyway, each hes a different flavor, the yellow more like peach and the red sort of like raspberry.
    I will try your low sugar recipe this week. Our neighbors cactus is loaded ready to pick.

    As to the question about using parafin… I would say not to. Why risk spoiling a good product as well as it could be messy to transport. Water bath is easy and much safer.

  19. The beta a betaine cyan colored pigment present in cactus fruit and in beets has been researched in India and is a specific to assist in treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia, a kind caused by an extra abnormal chromosome.

    I have cactus fruit on the stove cooking down right now.

  20. I only have regular powdered pectin- it was all I can find here in southern France. I followed your recipe last year with this pectin and the result was syrupy. Surprise, surprise that same jelly is now more jelled, although still soft. What can I do differently with the regular pectin- add more? boil longer? for instant gelling? Thanks.

  21. Not sure what happened…we used aguave nectar instead of honey.
    All lids sealed beautifully but it is not solid.
    Do I need more pectin and should I also boil longer.
    about 3 lbs of tunas were used.

  22. Hi Debra,

    We have to moderate our comments here–that’s why your comments weren’t showing up. If you commment again, just hang tight–it will appear.

    As to the agave syrup, as far as I know you cannot make jelly with agave syrup. Jellies require white sugar and a lot of it. They’re just not health food.

    Erik–who is Mr. Jam around the house–is not here to comment, and he’s more of an expert. Perhaps he can come back and comment on the technical side of this problem. For instance, I don’t know if agave syrup would set up a sufficiently acidic environment for safe canning in a water bath.

    I don’t like to use much white sugar myself. A good alternative to jelly are fruit butters, which can be made entirely with the sugars already present in the fruit. But unfortunately tunas are too watery to make a butter.

  23. Debra–try a batch following the recipe exactly and let me know if you are still having trouble. An alternative is to dehydrate sliced prickly pear fruit if you are concerned about eating too much sugar. Or just eat them fresh seeds and all.

  24. DON’T DUMP if it doesn’t set, it makes great syrup on waffles. Even to flavor milk or over ice cream. I had this no setting problem too with 2 batches of jelly this year, using sure-jell. No problem in the batch using store brand pectin. SO, I took 1 Tbs of store brand pectin and mixed it with 1/4 cup water in a pan, stirred and heated to boil, pouring in 4 half pints of the jelly/syrup with 1/4 cup of sugar, boiled hard and stirring for a minute and then rejarred and processed. One redo I added a tbs lemon juice, and the other I didn’t. Both batches re-set well. I also made a no sugar batch using 12 packets splenda, 2 cups juice, Tbs lemon juice, 2Tbs no sugar Ball pectin. Worked great. If you add a couple green or half ripe tunas when doing the juice it raises the natural pectin.

  25. Can you give a weight or volume measurement for “one package low sugar pectin?” I have a huge jar of it and certainly I won’t need to use all that. My cactus is loaded and I’m ready to start making jelly! Thanks!

  26. I made a 138 jars of cactus jelly and syrup last fall. A quicker way to juice the fruit is to steam the whole fruit in a double boiler for 10 min, no need to burn off the needles, then follow the rest of your directions. The steaming causes the needles to be too soft to go through the clothe. I just juiced 6 quarts this morning and not one quill, nor did I get one needle in the 138 jars from last year.

  27. First time out of the chute making prickly pear jelly. One thing I did different was to roast them over a mesquite fire before running them through the juicer. Great flavor but the 8 oz jars I canned last night has not set a bit. They’re going to be my waffle syrup.

  28. While i have not made tuna jelly, i have been making jalepeno jelly with agave nectar. I use pomona’s unIversal pectin which has extensive directions for formulating your own recipes. I used the pectin instructions for honey and it gels perfectly. I use xgave brand nectar and follow their white sugar equivelancy ratio.

  29. I live in Central Arizona and this is the 2nd year I’ve made prickly pear jelly. This time, after using our camp stove and a skewer to singe the spines off each one, I rinsed and halved the pears and used my gadget for getting the meat out of avocados to get the flesh of the pears out. I ran the seeds and pulp through my sieve and came out with almost an applesauce texture. This year I tried using 1 cup of Stevia instead of 5 cups of sugar and also used the low sugar pectin. If what we scraped out of the pot is any indication, I would say it was a success. :-) Oh, and I also use key limes instead of lemons and love the zing. I’m grateful I live where we can ride our quads all the time and I’m always making mental notes of where there are veritable forests of prickly pears. LOL Thanks for all the great hints and Happy Hunting!

  30. Dear Homegrown Evolution,
    I know it’s late in the year, but we found a wonderful batch of garnet fruit above what’s left of the Pedernales River outside of Austin. I’m using your recipe, but all I have is a pressure canner. Can I use this? How?
    Thanks, Karren at the Arfinage

  31. Hi Anonymous,

    I don’t know the answer to that question other than to say that there’s no need to pressure can this recipe as it has sufficient acidity and sugar to just use a water bath. I’ll ask some friends of mine tonight who are master food preservers.

  32. Dear Mr. Homegrown,
    Wow! Are you a prompt responder–and on Thanksgiving weekend, too! Thank you SO much! I have boiled, peeled and de-seeded my fruit. At this stage it smells very much like Mustang Grape jelly. Yum. I may try cooking a batch (I have a fair amount)and pressure cooking the result at 5 lbs for 8 minutes. I’ll let you know how it works, but I’d still be very grateful if you’d discuss this with your friends this evening.
    P.S. When I pressure canned my plums last year (the squirrels got every last one this year), they came out syrupy. I did exactly what your above correspondents did: I used the syrupy jelly as syrup…and I didn’t mention to folks I gave it to that it was supposed to be jelly!
    Thanks again for your prompt reply,
    Karren at the Arfinage

  33. I have the red tuna in arkansas. getting ready to do my jelly for the first time. I am so excited to try this. I pruned my cactus last year and I have 3 times as much fruit. Thanks for the information

  34. another way to remove the spines is while wearing leather gloves rub/roll the tunas around on some grass or thick bush like rosemary…the spines come off. much easier than burning off. this was shown to me by a MEXICAN.
    Cardie

  35. This the first time i have tried prickly pear jam. Have been making jam/jellies for few years. When extracted the juice from the tunas it was slimy and smelled like olavera juice. Tasted it without sugar and it was awful. I have read how wonderful the fruit is and the juice. Did i do something wrong. They were magenta red when picked a few days ago.

    • Sorry we missed your question. I have no idea what went wrong there. Ripe tunas should be sweet and not so slimy. Perhaps you weren’t picking true prickly pear fruit? There’s others which look similar. The most commonly eaten variety is Opuntia ficus-indica. Or maybe that cactus makes bad fruit for some reason. Tunas should be sweet enough to eat out of hand. They’re Erik’s favorite fruit.

  36. Last year when I made it the the fruit were magenta red and the fruit tart. The jelly tasted yummy though. Hoping to make some this weekend. Momma in Texas

  37. help im a new canner. after i do all of the above recipe i pour mix into jars then do i do wax on top or do i have to poil the jars and how long sorry if dumb question i dont have a big canning pot like my mom had

  38. My family has made prickly pear jelly for a lot of years (also jalepeno Jelly-mmmm). Quicker and easier way to remove spines and stickers: Pour pears out on BBQ grill and spread them out, using a hand held propane torch (available at all hardware stores)and burn the spines and stickers off, turn pears and torch other side. Easy and quick! My wife and I are canning 5 gallons of pears right now.

  39. We live in Arizona. We have made prickly pear jelly a few times in the past, but it’s been a while. I tried your low sugar recipe and it turned out great. Our method for processing the pears is as follows: Rinse them several times in a bucket with hot water. This gets most of the needles off. Then with kitchen gloves on we cut them in half and scoop out the pulp into a bowl. Then we run it through our juice extractor. (The kind you use to make carrot juice) This separates the seeds from the juice. This is much easier than burning the needles off or cooking the fruit.

    • Did the jelly have to be refrigerated to jell or did it thicken as it cooked down with all the ingredients including the pectin.I don’t have low sugar pectin because I bought the liquid type can I use it and not add as much sugar stated in the recipe in the box or will less sugar inhibit the thickening of the jelly?

    • You don’t have to refrigerate the jelly to get it to jell. But you can’t reduce the amount of sugar. The amount of sugar is part of getting the jelly to jell as well as a preservative.

    • We have tried using the liquid type sure jell because the stores where out of the boxed sure jell. This was with a different jelly but it did not work. We had to find powered sure jell and re-make it.

  40. My husband and I are a bit new to prickly pear jelly but not to jelly/jam making. We made some per my grandmas instructions in August that did not set up. We re-did it all when we came home from visiting her, adding more sure jell and it sat up beautifully and tasted wonderful, but it is very sweet. We are going to try the low sugar recipe you have here, this week. We still have some jars we need to re-do from August plus we have a lot of juice stored up in 2 liter soda bottles in the deep freeze. Can’t wait to try the low sugar recipe! Also thanks to whoever it was that posted about using splenda in place of sugar!! My dad is diabetic and misses out. We will make that version so he can enjoy! So glad I happened across this site.

  41. I am new to canning and prickly pear jelly. I followed your instructions exactly for the low-sugar pectin and it did not set up. I think that when I was adding the last of the sugar and it said to stir constantly and boil for a minute, that maybe I didn’t get it stirred as well because I was trying to add sugar and stir at the same time and it started to give me clumps in the pot as I was stirring. So, when I added to the jars, I noticed some of the jellied mixture was still on the bottom of the pot. Maybe I should have added more pectin to compensate for the lost pectin in the bottom?

    • I just used a big old pot that used to be non-stick but is all scratched up now and I use it for boiling pasta or making big sized dishes with it. I didn’t double the recipe, in fact, I weighed out 4lbs of fruit exactly, but after adding the water to cover it and then mash it, I had probably double the juice. But, I set the remained of juice aside and still followed the 4 cups of juice that the recipe called for. Do you think it was too watery? The recipe said to cover the fruit once it was quartered and that it should take about 2 1/2 cups, but it actually took more than that to cover it. Thanks for your help on this because I am thinking of making more with the left over juice that I have.

    • I think you’re right–probably too watery. Another technique I discovered recently is juicing the fruit with a food mill. In fact, I should revise this recipe.

    • Ok, so I’m going to try this again with the left over juice. Assuming it is too watery, what should I do differently? Add more pectin? More sugar? If so, I’ll need tablespoon measurments for the pectin since mine is in a jar. Thanks! The last batch called for a “package” of low-sugar pectin and the research on the internet said a package is equal to 3 1/2 tablespoons, so that is what I used last time. Thank you!

    • Maybe I was unclear or maybe I am confused, but when I made the first batch, I had double the juice that I needed (8 plus cups). The 6 jars I processed (using 4 cups juice) didn’t set up, but they sealed and I was going to keep them sealed & use for syrup. So, I wanted to make a brand new batch out of the left over juice that hasn’t been processed yet. Since we talked about it possibly being too watery, my question was do I add more pectin or sugar to help that out. I don’t think that would call for reprocessing directions since it wasn’t processed in the first place right? I eagerly await your reply so that I can try this again with more juice. Thanks for your help!

    • Hmmmm. If it’s too watery, I’d probably skip it. The flavor of the prickly pears is pretty subtle to begin with so you’d probably end up with something that tastes like sugar and lemon juice. Sorry it didn’t work out for you. I’m going to amend the recipe to suggest using a food mill.

  42. Prickly pear jelly novice…would it be possible to sub in honey for the sugar? The low sugar pectin I have lists honey as a possible sweetener. If so, do you know what the substitution quantity would be? Our honey is from our ranch, not bought of the store shelf, so is very pure. Thanks in advance for any advice you might have.

    • Hi Sarah, According to the Food Safety Advisor (published by the University of Washington Extension Service), “In a recipe with no added pectin, you may replace half the sugar with honey. In a recipe with added pectin, you can replace approximately one-forth of the sugar with honey. Jams and jellies made with honey will have a darker color and slightly different flavor than those made with sugar.”

  43. How much pectin is in a box? I am having trouble getting the ratios correct, and I want to be sure that the boxes of pectin that I am using are the same as the ones you are! Thank you

  44. Thanks for the recipes, they’ve been great! What would happen if I used regular pectin instead of low sugar pectin? Is there any way to sub regular pectin? I have 6 boxes of regular pectin to use up before I can go out and buy the low-sugar version.

  45. I usually just swish the fruit in cold water to get the spine and prickles out, worked great for me. Also lime juice instead of lemon juice, I made both last year can not decide which one I like better.

  46. Pingback: Still Canning Season Here | Mary Jane's Button Box

  47. Tip for getting spines off prickly pears: 1. Always wear protective eyewear when doing this!! 2. Stand upwind from cactus plants and using a clean paint brush, gently brush spines off the “tunas.” Yes, this works! I do it every year. Oh, and then, 3. Using kitchen tongs, crack or cut tuna from cactus and place in a clean bucket; 4. Fill bucket with water and using the tongs, roll tunas around (this helps release more stubborn spines. 5. Drain water (maybe outside?) and rinse again. Viola`!

    • There are a lot of instructions out there for gummy bears type candy and they probably use gelatin for the flavor. Some use “unflavored” gelatin. You could probably just add prickly pear juice for the flavoring. Anyway, that’s where I would start.

  48. In your ingredients list, you say “package” of pectin but in your instructions you say “box” of pectin. A box sounds like a lot more pectin than a package of pectin. Could you clarify this by maybe stating the ounces?

    • Bill. Thanks for catching this. I meant package–the post has been corrected. The brand I use–Sure Jell–is a box with one package (1.75 ounces) of pectin. Hope that answers your question.

  49. Thank you for this recipe! I was looking all over for a reliable one for cactus pear! Do you have one for Pakistani mulberry jam?

    • Thanks! Unfortunately, I don’t. I have a friend with a Pakistan mulberry tree, but I always eat them all before even thinking about making jam!

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