At first glance, you might think that eating cactus is a bad idea — so many thorns! This is why you may be shocked to hear that cooking cactus is growing in popularity. Not only are nopalitos (pads of the nopal cactus) a delicious addition to a meal, but they're also packed with health benefits.
To cook nopalitos, start by scraping off the spikes and cutting them into small strips or squares. Then, you can either boil them in water for 15 to 20 minutes or pan-fry them in oil until the “slime” has evaporated. Once cooked, try adding nopalitos to scrambled eggs, quesadillas or another dish of your choice.
Cactus Benefits and Nutrition
Nopalitos, or the prickly "paddles" of the nopal cactus, are a common ingredient found in Mexican and Central American cuisine. But before you decide to take the adventurous plunge and try cooking cactus at home, it's worth learning about the incredible, superfood-like nutritional benefits that come with this plant.
According to the Mayo Clinic, nopal cactus — also known as opuntia or prickly pear — is promoted for treating diabetes, high cholesterol and obesity and touted for its antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. This is largely due to the fact that nopal cactus is high in fiber, antioxidants and carotenoids.
A September 2014 study published by PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, also showed that nopal cactus contains protective properties that help prevent nerve damage and sensory loss. Ease into your nopal cactus consumption, however — Mayo Clinic lists occasional side effects including mild diarrhea, nausea and increased stool volume and frequency.
Cooking Nopales Without Slime
Whether you are boiling or pan frying your nopales, you can expect to see a little bit of slime at first. Don't worry — this is completely normal.
Start by removing the spikes and knobs on each paddle with a peeler or knife. You may want to wear protective rubber gloves for this part of the process, for obvious reasons. Gently trim the outer edges and then lay your nopales down, cutting them into small strips or squares. There are two great options for cooking nopales without slime:
- Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and then add your nopalitos. Let them boil for approximately 15 to 20 minutes until tender. Drain and use as desired.
- Add 2 tbsp of oil to a skillet and place it on the stove over medium-high heat. Add your nopalitos and a pinch of salt and then cook for approximately three minutes. Reduce heat to medium and cover for about 20 more minutes or until the clear "slime" substance has evaporated. Drain and use as desired.
Nopalitos taste especially good in dishes with garlic, sautéed onion and tomato. Yum!
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, one pad of cooked cactus made with oil has only 12 calories, 0 grams of cholesterol and less than 1 gram of both fat and carbohydrates. Cactus is also a good source of magnesium, potassium, fiber and carotene and can be incorporated into a plant-based diet or any other healthy diet.
- Mayo Clinic: “I've Seen Prickly Pear Cactus Promoted as a Superfood. What's Behind the Hype?”
- PubMed - US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: “Nopal Cactus (Opuntia Ficus-Indica) as a Source of Bioactive Compounds for Nutrition, Health and Disease”
- United States Department of Agriculture: “Cactus, Cooked, Made with Oil”
- "The Essential Cuisines of Mexico"; Diana Kennedy; 2009