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 more than 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, or even goat-y (in England, capers are a classic addition to mutton).
How are Capers Made?
After the 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 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. Larger capers are stronger in flavor and less aromatic; the designations are surfines, capucines, capotes, fines, and grusas.
Since the caper buds are picked by hand, the cost of a small jar can seem excessive. Pickled nasturtium seeds are a handy substitute: Try making your own Poor Man's Capers at home.
Caper berries are the fruit of the caper bush. About the size of an olive, the berry is attached to a long cherry-like stem. When pickled, it makes for a vivid 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 Sicilian cooking, although from sauce to the Milanese sauce with anchovies, the little berries can be found the length of the boot.
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 non-negotiable mates with nova lox and cream cheese on a New York bagel.