Learn how to cook nopales at home! You’ll learn how to choose the best nopales, how clean and prep them by removing the spines, and how to cook them to use in all your favorite dishes!
Nopales have always been in regular rotation in my Mexican kitchen growing up. My mom and dad would bring home fresh nopales from the local hispanic grocery store and would prep and cook them that day to eat in different dishes throughout the week.
Nowadays, many grocery stores are starting to carry already prepped and chopped nopales in the produce aisle. But if you don’t live near a store that carries them, don’t worry! Prepping and cooking nopales at home is actually super easy!
What are nopales?
Nopales, or cactus paddles, are the pads of the prickly pear cactus. They’re a very common ingredient in Mexican cuisine and are used in all sorts of dishes, including tacos and salad. They have a thick and meaty texture with a mild flavor that’s a cross between asparagus and okra.
When their spines and thorns are removed, they can be chopped or sliced and then cooked until tender. During the cooking process, they release a slime that’s also similar to okra. This is easily removed by rinsing the cooked nopales a few times before using them in other dishes.
Picking the best nopales
If you can, try to pick the best nopales you can find.
You’ll want to pick ones that are flexible, but not too soft. You don’t want them to be extremely floppy and limp. Also try to choose ones that are bright green. The brighter the color, the fresher they are.
How to cook nopales
Step 1: Carefully remove the spines and brown bumps from the cactus paddles.
First things first, if you’ve never worked with cactus paddles before, be careful because each pad has little tiny spines and thorns that will easily prick your fingers. I recommend using gloves at first. Once you get the hang of it, you can try to handle them without gloves.
Lay the cactus paddles flat on a cutting board. Using a sharp knife, carefully scrape and slice off the spines and the brown bumps by running the knife back and forth along the paddles. Most of the spines and brown bumps will come off by scraping, but you’ll likely have a few stubborn spots that you’ll need to slice off.
Step 2: Cut, dice, or slice nopales.
Next, give the cactus paddles a quick rinse to make sure they’re totally clean. Then dice them into 1/2-inch pieces or slice them into 1/2-inch strips (like you would fajitas).
Dicing is great for quick veggie side dishes, and slicing is great for eating in tacos and salads.
Step 3: Cook in boiling water until tender.
Add the fresh cut nopales to a medium pot and fill it with enough water to cover them. Add in a little salt and bring it to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium, cover, and cook for 10 more minutes until tender.
Once they’re cooked through, drain all the water from the pot and give them another rinse under warm water to remove any excess slimy liquid.
That’s it! You can eat them just like this, or saute them in a little olive oil with some garlic, onions and any other spices you like.
One popular recipe using nopales is nopales con huevo, or nopales cooked with scrambled eggs. They’re a delicious vegetable addition to any meal, and even make delicious vegetarian tacos!
More Mexican recipes to try
- 2 cactus paddles
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- Place the cactus paddles on a cutting board. Using a sharp knife, carefully scrape and slice off the thorns and dark brown bumps on all sides.
- Rinse the cactus paddles under running water to remove any dirt and grime.
- Dice the cactus paddles into bite-size pieces or slice them into thin strips.
- Place in a medium pot with salt, and fill with water until all the cactus paddles are covered.
- Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium, cover with a lid, and cook for 10 more minutes.
- Drain the water from the nopales and give them another rinse under warm water to remove any excess slimy liquid.
- Eat plain or saute in a little olive oil with your favorite seasonings. (See post above for more ways to use cooked nopales.)