What Are Capers and What Do They Taste Like?

Pickled-capers-in-a-white-porcelain-spoon-on-a-brown-wooden-cutting-board

If you love salty, briny flavors like anchovies, maybe you’re also a fan of capers.

Or, perhaps you have no idea about these feisty little green things.

Either way, you’ll be an expert on capers by the end of today’s brief guide. Let’s get started with some basics on capers.

I. Capers 101

Capers.-Marinated-or-pickled-canned-capers-fruit-close-up-in-glass-jar-on-gray-kitchen-table-background

Capers come from the caper bush (Capparis spinosa). Specifically, capers are the young and unripened green flower buds.

The plain is cultivated in Europe, Asia, and Australia. Capers are typically associated with Mediterranean dishes, but they are also enjoyed worldwide.

We have been using capers since at least 2000 BC where it rates a mention in this history books as a food used in Sumerian literature (Epic of Gilgamesh).

Capers are dried or brined and prized for the powerful and flavorful kick it imparts to dishes. Adding texture to sauces, stews, pasta, and fish dishes, capers also add a degree of tanginess.

To achieve this, the unripened buds are left to dry in the sun before being pickled in salt, brine, vinegar, or wine. During the curing process, the immature bud turns into the salty little ball you’ll find on your plate or your pizza, and the curing also enhances the tangy lemon flavor in capers. The flavor profile is not dissimilar to that of green olives.


II. What Are the Different Kinds of Capers?

Marinated-capers-in-a-bowl-on-a-white-wooden-background

You’ll find commercial capers are categorized and sold according to size.

Caper buds can be as small as a green pea or as large as a little olive. The smaller the caper, the more delicate the texture and the better the flavor. If you use large capers, these are quite acidic, so use a light touch to avoid overpowering the dishes.

The very smallest capers are called French nonpareils. These measure roughly ¼-inch in diameter, and they hail from the south of France. These capers are the most prized of all, and they come with a correspondingly higher price tag.

The other types of caper in order of size are:

  • Surfines
  • Capucines
  • Capotes
  • Fines
  • Grusas

So far, so good. Are capers any good for you, though?


III. Nutritional Content of Capers

Although capers are very low in cholesterol, they are very high in sodium when pickled, meaning you should consume capers in moderation.

Beyond this, capers are a good source of all of the following:

  • Fiber
  • Protein
  • Vitamins (A, C, E, K)
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Folate
  • Magnesium
  • Niacin

IV. How to Use Capers

Smoked-salmon-with-capers-on-toast

Long a staple of the Mediterranean region, capers play a starring role in these traditional Italian dishes:

In French cuisine, capers are added to skate meuniere along with browned butter.

Capers are also a key ingredient in many Spanish tapas.

Indians pickle the buds and fruits of the caper plant, while Americans use capers to add some acidity to a New York bagel with lox and cream cheese. Capers are also used for garnish in the United States.

The little green buds can also bring a sour, salty flavor to a range of other recipes. Imagination is your only limitation here.

When you’re cooking with capers, you need very little prep. Toss them into salads – including chicken, potato, and pasta salads – or use them as garnish or a condiment. Chop some capers finely and introduce them to sauces and dressings.

Many people encounter capers for the first time on pizzas, and they work wonderfully as toppings.

You may also enjoy capers with some roasted vegetables.

The intense saltiness of capers lends well to rich fish like salmon, as well as lamb.

Partner capers with lemon to enhance their natural lemon-olive flavor profile. Capers also go very well with nuts and cheese.


V. Cooking With Capers

The strong taste of capers means you should use them sparingly, especially the bigger varieties.

Resist the temptation to throw in a handful and use just enough capers not to overwhelm the other flavors in the dish.

You can use capers right out the jar. Some recipes require you rinse them to remove some of the salt and vinegar. This lets the real flavor of the caper burst through. Make sure you use a paper towel to blot the capers dry after you rinse them.

You’ll need to chop larger capers before using them. The consistency required will vary from finely chopped capers for sauces, and puréed capers for tapenades.

You typically add capers to a hot pan with your other ingredients near the end of the cooking process. This helps them to stay in shape and retain that trademark taste.


VI. What Else Can You Use Instead of Capers?

Fresh-caper-in-the-glass-bowl

Capers taste similar to green olives, so you could use some of these as an effective caper substitute. The main differences are that olives are much bigger than capers, but they are also less pungent and aromatic.

The intense flavor of thyme can work as a substitute for capers. As an herb, thyme will not add any texture to your food, though.

To round out today, where can you buy capers and how should you go about storing them?


VII. Buying and Storing Capers

Most grocery stores and supermarkets should stock at least one variety of capers. You can expect a wider range on offer in natural food stores, gourmet stores, and specialty stores.

Increasingly, you can also find capers online.

You’ll usually find capers in small 4oz-jars, typically in vinegar brine.

Smaller capers are more expensive as we mentioned above, and you can expect to pay about the same as for a jar of gourmet olives.

Caper bushes grow wild in their native regions. The buds are often foraged. While caper plants can tolerate heat well, they do not respond well to the cold. If you have capes in a northern climate, you should overwinter them indoors. When harvested, caper buds are preserved in brine.

The best method of storing capers hinges on whether they were stored in salt or brine.

For both types of caper, store them in an airtight container. Salt-preserved capers are good for up to 6 months at room temperature. You should make sure any brine-preserved capers are completely submerged in the brine. If so, they will last for up to 9 months in the refrigerator.

If you detect any nasty smells or any discoloration in the jar, this is a sign the capers have gone bad. In this case, you should throw them away.


VIII. Conclusion

If you arrived here at Madiba today with no idea about what capers are or what they taste like, that should have changed.

As you can see, this salty green buds complement a wide variety of dishes, so you’re spoiled for choice if you want some saltiness in your life.

Just bear in mind the high sodium content of pickled capers, and resist the temptation to gorge on these things. That aside, enjoy!

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