What Are Capers?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

A bowl of capers

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The caper is the immature, unripened, green flower bud of the caper bush (Capparis spinosa or Capparis inermis). The plant is cultivated in Italy, Morocco, and Spain, as well as Asia and Australia. It's most often associated with Mediterranean cuisines, but enjoyed worldwide. Brined or dried, the caper is valued for the burst of flavor it gives to dishes. It adds texture and tanginess to a great variety of recipes, including fish dishes, pasta, stews, and sauces.

Fast Facts

  • Origin: Caper bush; Mediterranean
  • Common Uses: Garnish, condiment, sauces, dressings
  • Substitute: Green olives, pickled nasturtium
  • Shelf Life: 6 months refrigerated

What Are Capers?

The caper is a prickly perennial plant native to the Mediterranean and some parts of Asia. Its use dates back to 2,000 B.C. where it's mentioned as a food in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. To turn the unripened bud into the salty green pea-sized ball, it is dried in the sun and then pickled in vinegar, brine, wine, or salt. The curing brings out the tangy lemon-like flavor, which is similar to green olives.

Caper vs. Caperberry

The caper is not the same as the caperberry. When the immature bud is not picked, it eventually develops into the caperberry fruit. The berry is larger than the biggest caper, about the size of an olive, and attached to a long, cherry-like stem. Caperberries have very small seeds inside that are similar to kiwi seeds. When pickled, they make an interesting garnish for bloody mary cocktails and martinis.

Varieties

Commercial capers are designated and sold by size. The buds range from tiny (about the size of a baby petite green pea) to the size of a small olive. Generally, the smallest caper will have the most delicate texture and better flavor. A larger caper is more acidic, so it is best to use these more sparingly.

The smallest variety—about 1/4-inch or 7mm in diameter—is from the south of France. Called French nonpareils, they are the most prized and come with an equally notable price tag. It's also relatively easy to find surfines capers, which are a little bigger (7mm to 8mm). Capucines (8mm to 9mm), capotes (9mm to 11mm), fines (11mm to 13mm, and grusas (over 14mm) are less common.

Caper Uses

Capers have long been a favorite in the Mediterranean region. They are well-known for being a star ingredient in the Italian recipes chicken piccata and pasta puttanesca. The French add them to skate meunier with browned butter and they're an essential ingredient for a number of Spanish tapas. In India, the fruits and buds of the plant are pickled. In the U.S., they're used to garnish and add acid to a New York-style bagel with nova lox and cream cheese.

These small, green buds can lend a piquant sour and salty flavor to many other recipes. There's little prep needed and they can simply be added to salads (including pasta, chicken, and potato salads), used as a condiment or garnish, or chopped finely for dressings and sauces. They're also cooked with roasted vegetables and a variety of main dishes or used as a pizza topping. The burst of salt and acid is a great complement to fish, especially rich ones such as salmon, as well as lamb. Quite often, you'll find capers partnered with lemon, which complements their natural lemon-olive flavor. Cheese and nuts are other popular complements.

How to Cook With Capers

Due to their strong taste, it's best to use caper sparingly (particularly the larger ones). Rather than adding a handful, take care to find a balance in the recipe so it doesn't overwhelm the flavors of the finished dish.

Capers are ready to use out of the jar. Many recipes call for rinsing the capers to remove some of the salt or vinegar, which allows the true flavor of the caper to come through. Blot the caper dry with a paper towel after rinsing. Larger capers should be chopped before use. Some recipes, such as sauces, may call for finely chopped capers while others use them in a puree like tapenade. Most of the time, you'll simply add them to the hot pan with other ingredients, typically toward the end of the cooking process. This allows the capers to keep their shape and maintain their signature taste.

What Does It Taste Like?

Capers have a flavor described as lemony, olivey, and salty. Much of the briny, vinegary taste comes from packaging.

Caper Substitute

To match the briny flavor of capers, the easiest substitute is finely chopped green olives. If you have access to them, pickled nasturtium seeds work as well; the nickname is "poor man's caper."

Caper Recipes

You will find capers in a variety of recipes, including seafood and pasta. It's also a good complement to lamb and cheese dishes. Capers are popular in a variety of salads or salad dressings, as well as tapenade and thick sauces like remoulade.

Where to Buy Capers

Well-stocked grocery stores, supermarkets, and natural food stores should offer at least one jar of capers for sale. They can also be found a specialty and gourmet food stores as well as online. Capers are typically packaged in small jars, no more than four ounces, in a vinegar brine. You can find them in the pickled food aisle alongside olives. Smaller nonpareil capers are more expensive than larger capers and are comparable in price to jars of gourmet olives.

In their native regions, caper bushes grow wild and the buds can be foraged. The caper spurge plant (Euphorbia lathyris) is a similar looking plant that is poisonous, so correct identification is vital. Backyard gardeners can also plant the bush from seeds or cuttings. The plant can tolerate heat but not cold, and should be overwintered indoors in northern climates. Harvest the caper according to your preferred size, then preserve the buds in brine.

Storage

Capers may be packed in brine or salt and this will determine how they should be stored; both should be in an airtight container. Brine-packed capers should be completely submerged and will keep for nine months or longer in the refrigerator. Unopened jars can be stored in the pantry. Salt-packed capers can be stored at room temperature for up to six months.

Foul odors and dark coloration in the jar (aside from any spices that may be included) are signs that the capers have gone bad and need to be discarded.

Nutrition and Benefits

Capers are a low-calorie, low-carb, and low-fat food. They're generally not eaten in big enough quantities (due to the taste) to contribute any significant nutritional value, but they are high in vitamin K and good sources of copper, iron, and magnesium. Capers are very high in sodium because of the curing process, a factor that may influence their use for anyone watching their salt intake.