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what is capers

Capers are the immature, unripened, green flower buds 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.

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.

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