What Are Capers?

Tangy, Salty and Aromatic: the Little Caper is a Flavor Heavyweight

Close-Up Of Capers In Bowl On Table
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Capers are the unripened flower buds of Capparis spinosa or Capparis inermis, prickly, perennial plants 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, they are valued for the burst of flavor they give to foods, a flavor described as lemony, olive-y and definitely salty.

How are Capers 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 lemony flavor, much the same as with green olives.

The size of the buds ranges from tiny (about the size of a baby petite green pea) up 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 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: Or try making your own Poor Man's Capers at home.

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. They have very small seeds inside (similar to kiwi seeds) and, when pickled, make an interesting garnish for bloody mary cocktails or martinis.

Capers in Recipes

Capers have long been a favorite in the Mediterranean region.

The small, green herb 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 compliment 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 before adding to remove some of the vinegar allowing the flavor of the caper to come through. You will also notice that the time to add the capers to the dish is toward the end of the cooking process--this allows the capers to keep their shape and maintain their signature taste.