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Nopales are one of Mexico’s most treasured ingredients. Bright green and slightly viscous, they’re the perfect addition to lots of traditional recipes when cooked right. Just watch out for those thorns!

Everything You Need To Know About Nopales

Nopales are a national symbol and Mexican superfood. After all, they’re not bright green for nothing. Once properly cleaned and cooked, nopales are an amazing base and pop of color for lots of traditional recipes.

However, it’s important to nail the cooking process and know what kind of dishes use whole, sliced, or diced ones in order to call your Mexican food authentic. Skip the boiling and they’ll be particularly crunchy in some dishes, but once boiled they’ll be too soft for others. So how exactly do you prepare them? This is the kind of thing this post will help you figure out.

With a nopal tree in the Mexican flag, it’s only fair to do the legend some justice by putting some effort into properly cooking your nopales at home. If the Aztecs had time to look for an eagle sitting on a cactus tree in the middle of a lake, then an extra 5-10 minutes of cooking time won’t kill you.

3 whole nopales

What Are Nopales?

Nopales are a variety of green Mexican desert cacti that is used in regional cuisines for chilled salads or hot dishes like mole. They’re bright green and come in different sizes depending on how old the cactus plant was when the nopales were cut.

You can buy them with or without thorns at most Mexican supermarkets. Sometimes you can even find them sliced or diced in serving-sized bags that you can just take home to save yourself the prep time.

While they can be eaten raw in the form of juices, smoothies, or even salads, nopales are typically boiled before they’re added to most hot dishes unless they’re grilled.

What Do They Taste Like?

Nopales have a refreshingly tart and citrusy flavor that can sometimes border on slightly bitter. Every bite has a tiny sour kick to it while maintaining a potent grassy flavor that’s a lot like kale or even asparagus. Once grilled, nopales take on a bit of sweetness (if lightly charred).

Diced nopales in a bowl.

Is Nopal Healthy To Eat?

Yes! Nopales are a Mexican superfood that’s very high in fiber, so it’s highly recommended for diabetes and heart patients because it helps lower cholesterol and blood pressure. It’s also a popular ingredient in weight-loss diets because it helps control obesity. In addition, nopales are packed with antioxidants (good for the skin), vitamins, and minerals to strengthen the immune system.

What To Look For When Buying Cactus Paddles

Choosing the perfect nopales is very easy as long as you know what to look for.

  • Color. They should range from bright green to deep green. Stay away from yellow or brownish ones.
  • Size. Smaller nopales are younger and, consequently, particularly tender. These are usually never bitter. While large nopales taste great too, they can be a bit fibrous.
  • Pre-cleaned. To save yourself lots of time, look for ones that already have the thorns removed. It’s very common to find pre-cleaned nopales in Mexican supermarkets.
  • Texture. Fresh nopales should be firm on the outside and tender on the inside, a lot like succulents. Avoid them if they’re soft, flimsy, or have a slightly slimy feel.
Close-up of diced cactus.

How to Cut & Prep Nopales

You can buy pre-cleaned nopales at most stores for convenience. However, if you can only find ones with thorns, it’s still very easy to clean them.

First, put on some thick kitchen gloves. Don’t skip this step, otherwise, it’s very easy to pinch yourself with the thorns. After that, grab a whole nopal and stand it up vertically, at a 60-80 degree angle. Then use a sharp knife to carefully slice along the largest edge to remove the thorns. Your cuts should be as thin as possible so that you don’t waste any nopal. Do this for both sides. Think of it like cutting the outer edge of a pineapple.

Once that’s done, you can prep them in several ways:

  • Whole. These are great for grilling or using as a substitute for masa in some dishes.
  • Sliced. Cut the nopales into 1/2-1″ thick slices and throw them into your favorite Mexican recipes once boiled.
  • Diced. Chopping them into 1/2-1″ squares is the perfect bite-size.

Finally, boil the nopales in a large pot of water with 1 teaspoon of baking soda for 15-20 minutes or until fork-tender. The boiling water will also become a bit slimy— which is perfectly normal. Drain and rinse them under cold water several times until they’re no longer viscous and set them aside for cooking.

Ways To Use Them in Recipes

They can be blended, grilled, sauteed, or eaten raw. Here are some common preparations to help get you started:

  • Blended. Nopales can be blended and added to all your favorite juices and smoothies, especially green ones. Add 1/4-1/2 cup of diced nopales to the rest of the ingredients and process until smooth. Don’t let it sit for too long without drinking it because it’ll start to become viscous like chia or flax seeds.
  • Grilled. This is best for whole or sliced nopales. This is the only cooking method for which you don’t need to boil them first. Place the nopales on a comal or griddle over medium-low heat and let them cook for 4-6 minutes on each side or until fork-tender. You get bonus flavor points for grill marks! To help avoid sticking, you can spray them with a bit of cooking spray. Use them as a carb-free base for recipes like huaraches and sopes.
  • Sauteed. This cooking method is great for sliced or diced nopales. Add 2-3 teaspoons of vegetable oil to a pan over medium heat and add the nopales. Cook them for 4-5 minutes and then add the rest of the ingredients. Sauteed nopales are perfect for warm salads, veggie dishes like my Calabacitas Recipe and Vegetable Enchiladas, and even tossed in mole sauce.
  • Raw. You can only have them raw in juices, smoothies, and chilled salads for some crunch.

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For the past 15 years, Jorge & Jessica have loved getting to share their families' favorite recipes with all of you. They live in Florida with their 3 kids.