Ensalada de Nopales {Cactus Paddle Salad} & How to Cook Nopales

I have a very special treat for you today, made with a very important staple in the Mexican diet, and a permanent fixture in my cocina...Nopales (cactus paddles).  Yes, you read that correctly...cactus paddles.  Not only are cactus paddles edible and delicious, but they're also very good for you.  They are known to help lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels.

When I was growing up, I wasn't a big fan of nopales.   That's probably because the only kind of nopales available back then at the Mexican market were nopales in a jar.  Something about the murky liquid they were packed in totally turned me off to even wanting to try nopales.  It wasn't until I was in my late teens that we started to see fresh nopales showing up in the produce section of our friendly neighborhood grocery store.  But still, even fresh nopales didn't appeal to me, because I couldn't get over the image of the jar of nopales with the murky liquid.

Hubby picking nopales at el rancho.

Moving to Mexico really opened my eyes to the joy of eating nopales.  My suegra buys a 1 pound bag of nopales every day, either at el mercado (the market) or from one of a handful of vendors who walked through our neighborhood everyday with baskets full of freshly cut nopales tiernos (baby cactus paddles), which are the ideal kind to eat.  (Not the big, thick cactus paddles.)

So, I got used to seeing fresh nopales on the table everyday, that in no way resembled the kind of nopales I remember from my childhood.  Just a few weeks after we moved to Mexico, I tried my first taco de nopales (a couple of spoonfuls of cactus paddle salad wrapped in a warm corn tortilla).  I don't know what I expected the nopales to taste like, but they were nothing like I imagined.  They were cool and kind of tart and absolutely delicious.  And I've been in love with nopales ever since.  (My kiddies are crazy about them too.)

Hubby teaching our boys how to clean cactus paddles .

Cooked nopales are traditionally used in Ensalada de Nopales (Cactus Salad), but they can be added to any dish.  Some of my favorites include Mole Ranchero with pork loin and Nopales, Chilito de Chicharron with Nopales and Scrambled Eggs with Nopales.  But cooked nopales are so good, I find myself snacking on them straight from the pan. 

Ensalada de Nopales

  • 1 pound nopales, cleaned and sliced or chopped
  • 1 sprig of cilantro
  • 1/4 medium onion
  • 2 roma tomatoes, chopped
  • 1/2 medium onion, chopped
  • Chopped cilantro 
How to cook nopales (cactus paddles)
There are two ways to cook cactus paddles for Ensalada de Nopales.  The traditional way of cooking nopales, which is how my suegra (mother-in-law) cooks them, is to boil the cactus paddles in water with cilantro and onion in a medium saucepan until soft.  Then drain into a plastic strainer, and let set for about 15 minutes to allow all of the liquid from the nopales to drain completely.

But my preferred method is one I learned from one of my sisters-in-law, which really reduces the amount of "babas" (slimy-like liquid) that the nopales release.  Place the sliced or chopped cactus paddles in a non-stick skillet with a sprig of cilantro and a couple pinches of salt, without any water at all.  (NO WATER!)

Cover and simmer over low heat.  Within minutes the nopales will start to release their own liquid, which is plenty enough to completely cook the nopales.

Continue to simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until all of the liquid has been absorbed and the cactus paddles are completely cooked with very little to no "babas" whatsoever.

And now for the ensalada....Gently mix together the cactus, chopped onion, tomato, and cilantro.  Season lightly with salt.  Serve as a side dish or as a topping for tacos and/or tostadas.  Enjoy!!!

*You could also add a couple of spoonfuls of Ensalada de Nopales to your scrambled eggs for Huevos con Nopales.


  1. I am not a fan of nopales and their slimy texture but they remind me of my grandparents. They had cactus growing on the side of their house and every once in a while they would cut down a few pieces, and cook them for lunch.

    thanks for the memories.

  2. I live in New Mexico and nopales a sold in almost every store...I love them with eggs...yum!

  3. My 10 year old daughter rejects most vegetables. She will eat nopales, though. She likes them grilled with salt and some lime juice squeezed on top. When they're grilled they're not nearly as slimy, and it's super simple to prepare them that way.

    I love them in a salad, though, so thanks for the recipe!

  4. You have no idea how much I love cactus! I don't know why I don't eat them that often. I think its because I don't ever go to the flea market, where their fresh. The one's from the supermarket look pretty yucky!

  5. My husband made "Ensalada de Nopales" for us for the first time last week. Our grocery store didn't carry it, but the guy that worked in the produce department (he was Mexican) brought some in for us special. He picked it fresh for us that morning! We enjoyed the salad and are now looking for some other recipes that include cactus. Do you have any more?

  6. JAM: Yay! I'm so glad that you were able to find Nopales and that you liked them. You should try them grilled. As far as other recipes using Nopales, I should be posting one next week.

  7. Thanks Leslie! We'll be looking forward to seeing it and trying it out.

    Also, do you have any posts on your blog about making tortillas? My husband wants to try making them and he is hoping for some authentic tortilla making secrets.

    btw... We both love your blog!

  8. Yum!!! Nopales are low in calories and I heard they are good for people with diabetes. My mom prepares them in many different ways, but I have to say that I LOVE it when she prepares them with Tortitas de Camaron during Lent. They're great!

  9. i love love nopal! mmm when i tell people we eat them theyre like "whaat?" i love that ur white an cook mexican food! soo well! anywho do you know what "cochas" are? we eat those alot in my rancho we are from matamoros tamps and also san luis :)

  10. Acreditamos que se se acrescentar uma pitada de açucar, durante a coção, a cor verde será mantida.Assim,aqui se faz com vargem ou outros "verde" que se quer preservar a cor.
    Um curioso ,em tudo na vida
    Santa Catarina -Brasil

  11. if you like nopales, you have to try them with chorizo. they are good, good, good......

    1. I just tried nopales con chorizo not too long ago at the ranch and they were absolutely delicious! :)

  12. Leslie,

    Your recipes are awesome. My husband is from Michoacan Mexico and we visit there every Christams for La Posadas. I was born and raised in Indiana but love to cook mexican food. Your recipes are almost as good as my suegra showing me....thanks***By the way I LOVE Mexico...we will retire there>>>

  13. I found this on Pinterest and almost didn't click on it because i have a recipe i grew up with that is similar but adds a capfull of vinegar and cotija cheese. I'm glad i did though i will definitely be trying the dry cooking next time. Thanks for the share.

  14. gracias por este truquito!! Hoy asi es que hago los nopales!!