I was fortunate enough to find myself with over 30 lbs. of prickly pears for various culinary and fermentable adventures. Thirty pounds is a lot of fruit and my carboys are full, but the season to pick this cactus fruit is now. So my first task is to preserve the fruit so that I could tackle these tasks at my leisure.
A lot of wine and mead recipes called for 5-6 lbs. of fruit, so I divided my batch up into 6 lb. increments. I found that 6 lbs. just about filled up a 1.25 gallon bucket that I use to buy 15 lb. batches of honey with.
Some of my reading said to grill the prickly pears just long enough to burn the picklies off. This process was also to make them easier to skin. So, I dumped six pounds of the cactus fruit on the grill and gave it a whirl. I quickly suspected this wasn’t going to be my method of choice. The grill was heated unevenly and too far from the flame to really burn the spines as effectively as I wanted. It helped a lot, but at what expense? The heat was causing the pears to juice out and I feared losing volume. Worst of all, I had several more batches to go and this just didn’t seem to be very efficient. How much gain for my pain?
For the rest of them, I just decided to skin just as they came off the plant: raw and prickly as the name suggests. Despite my leather gloves, I am still carrying tweezers around with me by the way. If I were to try a burning method again, I think next time I will rig something up sort of like grilling marshmallows over an open flame. At any rate, methods like this just seem more reasonable for smaller quantities of fruit.
As for the efficiency, it didn’t seem to loose me as much as I had feared. The 6 lbs. of grilled fruit yielded me just over 3 lbs. of pulp and juice. I weighed two of the raw increments. One of them was just ½ ounce more; the other was close to ½ lb. more. The raw increments had more pulp intact but still enough juice to be messy. With such a limited sample, it is really hard to say how much the method really accounted for. I suspect I was also becoming more efficient at gutting these little buggers.
Speaking of gutting and skinning, I developed a method I had not yet seen before that seemed to work pretty well for me. Holding the fruit upside down, stab the fruit through just above the blossom and cut away from you toward the stem, cutting the fruit in half lengthwise. This way you have two fruit halves held together by the blossom. Use a spoon to clean it out like scraping the goody from an artichoke leaf; though the consistency of the raw fruit is more like eating a kiwi with a spoon. Keeping the two halves attached just makes it easier that trying to put down and pick up the halves with a bulky cumbersome leather glove.
From here I just put the goody in freezer bags and froze them. For most fruits that you intend to juice, freezing becomes a good part of the process anyway. The ice crystals that form cut and burst open the cells allowing it to juice out much easier when you are ready for it.
When it came time to prepare the juice, I thawed out a bag and brought it to a boil, then strained it with cheese cloth. From what was originally six pounds of fruit, I now had a little over three cups of juice with a specific gravity of 1.038. It will need sugar, but it is packed full of flavor and will be the inspiration for many adventures to come.
Now that I have gone through this I am left with lingering questions that I want to someday resolve. First, why did I bother skinning the fruit? I saw a lot of articles on the internet about using a food processor to break up the goody for juicing. What is wrong with putting the entire fruit in the food processor, then cooking it down and straining it? Would the spines not get strained out? Would there be any off flavors produced? How do companies that sell prickly pear products do it on a large scale?
The other thing I discovered is that while the fruit looked ripe from the outside, some of the pulp was more kiwi green on the inside. Is this going to make a difference? Some fruit is still good when it is a little green.
If you know the answers to these questions or have anything else to add, please do. Expect to someday see the final product of my prickly pear adventures.