How To Prepare Nopales (Cactus Pads)

Nopales (cactus paddles), in Mexican cuisine, are used for endless recipes: prepared cold, sautéed, fried and even roasted. Today you’ll learn all about nopales plus how to prep and cook them without the sticky texture. 

A bunch of nopales paddles on an oval platter.

🌵 The Nopales

We carry the nopal even in our veins, well not so much, but even in the shield of our flag. It is native to Mexico, so it is a gift from nature that nourishes, tastes good, can be combined with endless other foods and is practically consumed in Mexico from end to end.

It belongs to the cacti family. It is made up of 300 species, which exist from Patagonia to the north of the United States. They have flowers that can be white, orange, red or purple, and produce a fruit, the prickly pear.

It is used to prepare many types of dishes, such as salads, stews, juices, sweets, and it is already produced in different presentations, such as dehydrated or powdered.

A group of cacti in the desert.

Are nopales a fruit or vegetable?

The paddles are consumed as a vegetable or is associated more with a vegetable, while the prickly pear is the fruit that grows in the nopal.

Nopales benefits

In Mexico, the nopal is like a sacred food due to its large number of healing, moisturizing and preventive properties. Here we show you more about the nopal and its health benefits.

To start, we must know what the nopal contains, it has vitamins and minerals such as: vitamin A, complex B, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, iron and lots of fiber!

This prickly pear cactus is known for treating diabetes, prevents colon cancer, helps with high cholesterol, obesity, keeps us hydrated and hangovers plus many more benefits. It is also known for its antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. For more information see WebMD.

A close up of a nopal leaf.

Remove the thorns (spines)

Before we make any recipe, the first thing you need to know is how to clean the nopales and how to remove the thorns. By carefully handling them, you can prepare the nopales without pricking yourself.

This process must be done before cooking them, it is very simple.

Clean the cactus paddles

  • Using a sharp knife, carefully hold the nopales by its stem with kitchen tongs or a kitchen towel and trim the edges off.
  • With the tip of the knife, scrape off its thorns. Then turn it to the other side and scrape down its stem until you get to the soft part.
  • Rinse the nopales under cold water and pass your fingers thru the flesh to ensure no more thorns or hard spots are left behind. You don’t want to eat those!

Slice nopales into strips or squares depending on how you’re going to prepare them.

Also, make sure you leave as much flesh as possible. That will make the nopales less slimy when cooking them.

A white bowl with cubed nopales.
Mexican Nopalitos

Ingredients

  • 5 to 6 small to medium nopales paddles
  • onion
  • garlic clove 
  • a handful of cilantro with stems
  • kosher salt

How to Cook Nopales

Learn to cook nopalitos to keep all of the nutritious properties and not having to rinse the slimy stuff (baba).

To cook the cactus

  • In a medium pot, add the cut nopales with ¼ onion, 1 garlic clove sliced in half, ½ teaspoon kosher salt and a handful of cilantro.
  • Heat over medium and cook. You’ll start to see the slime come out right away, but don’t worry, this will go away soon.
  • Continue to cook uncovered, stirring once in a while to cook evenly.
  • Cook until tender and the slimy juice has disappeared. About 13 to 15 minutes.
  • Cool and store in an airtight container or use in your planned recipe.

Recipes with Nopales

In the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a few new recipes for my “Nopalitos series”. Here are a few ideas to get you started and what will be coming soon!:

  • Nopales Salad
  • Tacos
  • Grilled Nopales – Grill them whole without slicing or dicing them. Just enjoy as a side veggie.
  • With eggs
  • Tortillas

Buying guide

A stack of nopales paddles at the grocery store.

You can find them at your local grocery store in the vegetables department. Sometimes they are sold loose (like in the photo) or sometimes they come in bags already cleaned up!

Choose nopales that are bright green and not soggy. Smaller paddles are a little bit more tender, but larger ones are also delicious.


Storage Icon Graphic.

Storing instructions

  • Fridge – Clean paddles as directed and place in an airtight freezer bag. Store them cooked or raw. They last up to 1 week raw.
  • Freezer – To Freeze cactus paddles, clean them as directed. Boil for one minute then submerge in ice cold water for a few minutes. Then place in a freezer bag removing as much air as possible. They last up to 1 month in the freezer.

FAQs

How do nopales taste?

The flavor of nopal is very discreet and a little tart, with a consistency similar to asparagus or okra with a slight touch of acidity.

Are nopales a Superfood?

In recent years, the study of this cactus and its nutritional properties has launched it into the category of super food: it has large amounts of calcium, fiber and water.

Do I boil the nopales before eating?

You can boil in water them following the same ingredients as this recipe plus add 1 teaspoon of baking soda. This will help remove the slime that forms in the water.

An oval plate with cubed cooked nopales paddles.
Nopales ready for any recipe!

💫 If you make this recipe be sure to leave a rating in the comments below. You can also tag me on Instagram at @anafriasb.🙏

Print Recipe

An oval plate with cubed cooked cactus paddles.

How To Cook Nopales (No Sticky Texture!)

Servings 2 servings
Ana Frias
5 from 8 votes
Prep Time 15 mins
Cook Time 15 mins
Total Time 30 mins
Nopales (cactus paddles), in Mexican cuisine, are used for endless recipes: prepared cold, sautéed, fried and even roasted. Today you’ll learn all about nopales plus how to prep and cook them without the sticky texture. 

Equipment

  • Medium pot
  • Shar knife
2 servings

Ingredients
  

  • 5 to 6 small to medium nopales paddles
  • ¼ onion
  • 1 garlic clove peeled
  • a handful of cilantro with stems
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt (or ¼ tsp table salt)

Instructions
 

Clean the cactus paddles

  • Using a sharp knife, carefully hold the nopales by its stem with kitchen tongs or a kitchen towel and trim the edges off.
    5 to 6 small to medium nopales paddles
  • With the tip of the knife, scrape off its thorns. Then turn it to the other side and scrape down its stem until you get to the soft part.
  • Rinse under cold water.
  • Sliced nopales into strips or squares depending on how you’re going to prepare them.
  • Tip: make sure you leave as much flesh as possible. That will make the nopales less slimy when cooking them.

To cook the cactus

  • In a medium pot, add the cut nopales with the onion, garlic, salt and cilantro. Heat over medium and cook until the slimy juice has disappeared. About 13 to 15 minutes.
    ¼ onion, 1 garlic clove, a handful of cilantro with stems, ½ teaspoon kosher salt (or ¼ tsp table salt)
  • Cool and store in an airtight container or use in your planned recipe.

ADD YOUR OWN PRIVATE NOTES

Whenever you come back to this recipe, you’ll be able to see your notes.

NUTRITION

Serving: 100grams | Calories: 16kcal | Carbohydrates: 3.33g | Protein: 1.32g | Sodium: 21mg | Potassium: 257mg | Fiber: 2.2g | Vitamin A: 457IU | Vitamin C: 9.3mg | Calcium: 164mg | Iron: 0.59mg

The nutritional information and US conversions are calculated automatically. I cannot guarantee the accuracy of this data. If this is important to you, please verify with your favourite nutrition calculator and/or unit conversion tool.

History

The nopal is so important for Mexicans because it is part of our daily diet and also because it symbolizes a lot. In fact, the original legend of the country involves it:

It is said that Huitzilopochtli convinced his people to leave Aztlán in search of a territory where their new territory would be founded. The location would be indicated by an eagle perched on a cactus devouring a snake. This is how they traveled for 165 years until in 1325 they found the signal and founded the city of Mexico Tenochtitlán. And now that symbol is part of our flag.

The nopal was very important in this pilgrimage because it was found in different places and with hostile climates; in fact, they considered it “plant of life”, because it resisted a lot. They also used it for medicinal purposes.

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12 Comments

  1. 5 stars
    I have seen these cactus leaves in the store and never known what to do with them. This post was so helpful and we really enjoyed having nopales for dinner last night with some grilled chicken!

  2. 5 stars
    There are a few dishes I have been wanting to make with these but I am super intimated to prepare them! Loved your simple step-by-step instructions! Going to try your salad next!

  3. 5 stars
    Well, I never made or tasted nopales before. This will be a challenge and something new for me, thanks!

  4. 5 stars
    Cooked my nopales to make the salad and they came out great! Perfectly crisp. Thanks for the recipe!