Capers are the unripened flower buds of Capparis spinosa or Capparis inermis. These prickly perennial plants are native to the Mediterranean and some parts of Asia. Their use dates back to 2000 B.C. where they are mentioned as a food in the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh.
Brined or dried, capers are valued for the burst of flavor they give to foods, a flavor described as lemony, olivey, and definitely salty. They make fun additions to a great variety of recipes, including fish dishes, tapas, pasta, and sauces. Once you start cooking with capers, you won't be able to stop!
How Capers Are Made
After the unripened flower buds are harvested, they are dried in the sun, then pickled in vinegar, brine, wine, or salt. The curing brings out their tangy lemon-like flavor in a manner similar to green olives.
The size of the buds ranges from tiny (about the size of a baby petite green pea) to the size of a small olive. The smallest variety from the South of France, called nonpareil, is the most prized and comes with an equally notable price tag. You will also find Surfines capers, which are a little bigger. Larger capers are stronger in flavor and more acidic, so it is best to chop them up before adding them to recipes.
Since the caper buds are picked by hand, the cost of a small jar can seem excessive. Pickled nasturtium seeds are a handy substitute. You could also try making your own poor man's capers at home.
It's important to note that capers are not the same as caper berries, which are the fruit (not the flower buds) of the caper bush. They are larger than the biggest caper—about the size of an olive—and attached to a long, cherry-like stem. Caper berries have very small seeds inside that are similar to kiwi seeds. When pickled, they make an interesting garnish for bloody mary cocktails and martinis.
Cooking With Capers
Capers have long been a favorite in the Mediterranean region. The small, green buds lend a piquant sour and salty flavor to salads, dressings, sauces, vegetables, and a variety of main dishes.
Capers are particularly common in Italian cooking, such as in pasta puttanesca and chicken piccata. The French add them to skate Meunier with browned butter. In India, the fruits and buds of the plant are pickled.
The vinegary burst of salt is a great complement to fish, especially rich ones such as salmon. Capers are also non-negotiable when it comes to a bagel with nova lox and cream cheese (New York-style).
Many recipes call for rinsing the capers to remove some of the vinegar, which allows the true flavor of the caper to come through. You will also notice that capers are typically added to the dish toward the end of the cooking process. This allows the capers to keep their shape and maintain their signature taste.
Caper Recipes You Must Try
As mentioned, capers are fantastic with fish. Quite often, you'll find them paired with lemon, which complements their natural lemon-olive flavor. Try this broiled tuna with lemon caper sauce recipe or, for a real culinary adventure, the Italian vitello tonnato (veal in tuna-caper sauce). For a recipe without the extra lemon, the grilled caper and dill salmon is one you won't want to miss.
When you're serving a salad, mix up a tahini caper salad dressing and drizzle it on top of your greens. It's an easy recipe and has a nice zing you'll find a use for in other meals.
Capers are also an essential ingredient for a number of Spanish tapas. For example, their tangy flavor pairs perfectly with goat cheese, paprika, garlic, and sun-dried tomatoes.
When it's time for lunch, consider a recipe like this simple pasta with capers, olives, and pine nuts. For a classy dinner, you'll definitely want to try your hand at a rack of lamb with herb-caper sauce.
Use these recipes as inspiration and an introduction to the unique flavor of capers. Once you get familiar with these tiny morsels, you'll know exactly which of your favorite dishes they can enhance.