Ever heard of capers? If not, you’re in for a treat. These salty little flower buds are a staple in Italian cuisine, and they’re also often found in Mediterranean dishes. In this post, we’ll be filling you in on everything you need to know about them.
Whether you already love to eat capers or have never tried one, we’ve got plenty of illuminating info about them for you in the paragraphs below. We’ll cover everything from how capers grow and how they’re harvested to how to make your own at home and add them to your favorite recipes.
The salty little green things you’ll find in the same aisle as the pickles are really buds from a flowering plant called the caper bush. Sometimes referred to as Flinders rose, the bush was found exclusively in parts of the Mediterranean until farmers started planting it elsewhere. Capers thrive in parts of the world where the air is relatively dry, which is why they grew so well in the Mediterranean in the past.
They’re now a staple in Italian cuisine, and they’re also often paired with everything from smoked salmon on a bagel to cocktails. Capers in your cocktail? Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!
Fun Facts About Capers
Curious about capers? Here are some facts about them that will blow your mind.
Capers Are Ancient
The oldest documented mention of capers is found in Gilgamesh, an ancient text estimated to date as far back as 2700 B.C. These little green guys have been name-dropped in some of the oldest writings in the world, so they must be pretty important.
The Bush That Capers Grow on Thrives Year-Round
The caper bush, scientific name Capparis spinosa, is a perennial plant, which means it grows year-round. Its flowers are white with a touch of pink, and its leaves are thick and arrowhead-shaped. The capers themselves are the buds that would eventually bloom into beautiful flowers if they weren't harvested.
The Greeks Used Caper Bush Roots as Medicine
The roots of the caper bush were used as medicine by the ancient Greeks. While Greek doctors favored the caper for its uses in medicine, the Greeks also cooked with parts of the caper plant. However, it’s thought that the Greeks preferred to use the plant’s roots in recipes instead of cooking with the capers themselves.
Capers Are Typically Eaten After They’re Pickled
Today, capers are typically enjoyed after being pickled. During the pickling process, the capers are stored in jars of brine for long periods of time. The brine used in pickling is primarily just salt and water, but it sometimes includes other ingredients as well.
There Are Multiple Types of Capers
There are six different types of capers, which are categorized based on size. The smallest ones, called non-pareil capers, can only measure up to a measly seven millimeters in size. These capers are so valuable because of how tiny they are, which makes them difficult to find and harvest.
The other sizes of capers include:
- Surfines, which can range from seven to eight millimeters in size
- Capucines, which can run from eight millimeters to nine millimeters
- Capotes, which can be as small as nine millimeters or as large as 11
- Fines, which can range from 11 to 13 millimeters
- Grusas capers are any buds that are 14 millimeters in size or larger.
Nasturtium Capers Are a Thing, Too
In some parts of the culinary world, nasturtium seeds are used instead of capers. The seed pods, along with the flowers themselves, are edible and are considered delicacies by some chefs. The seeds of the nasturtium flower are said to have the most flavor of any of the parts of the plant.
Like capers, they’re typically pickled before use, then added to Italian dishes like chicken piccata or fettuccine alfredo.
Capers Are an Ingredient in Tartar Sauce
Tartar sauce is a rich condiment that is typically made with mayonnaise as its main ingredient. Commonly paired with fish sticks, fish and chips, fried oysters, and other seafood-based treats, the sauce is often made with capers. Other ingredients in the mix include lemon juice for acidity, chopped pickles, and herbs and spices like dill and tarragon.
Capers Are High in Vitamins
In addition to tasting delicious, capers are nutritious, too. The buds of the caper bush contain plenty of vitamin A, vitamin K, and several B vitamins, including riboflavin and niacin. In addition to these vitamins, a serving of capers is also packed with minerals, including calcium, copper, and iron.
Cooking With Capers
Now that you’ve got plenty of knowledge about capers, it’s time to get familiar with the methods for cooking with them. Below is need-to-know information about adding capers to your favorite recipes.
What Do Capers Taste Like?
Capers have a very strong and distinct flavor that can be described as salty and savory. The flavor profile of a caper is a bit sour as well. Caper buds pair well with acidic ingredients like citrus, as well as fatty ones like olive oil. They’re sometimes found on charcuterie boards alongside olives, cheese, nuts, and crackers.
When it comes to cooking with capers, “less is more” is a good rule to live by. Too many of these little olive-like buds can overwhelm the rest of the flavors in a dish, so it’s best to add just a few rather than several spoonfuls. In addition, due to the amount of brine used in the pickling process, too many capers can significantly up the sodium content in your meals.
When Should I Add Capers Into My Meals?
Capers don’t need to be prepared in any way before they’re ready to add to a meal, so you can just take a few out of the jar with a spoon and sprinkle them over a plate of food. However, it’s often recommended that you give your capers a quick rinse before using them. Adding the rinsing step to the process is meant to make the flavor of the capers a little less salty.
Capers can either be added to a plate after cooking is complete or thrown in the pan with the rest of your cooking ingredients. Either way, it’s best to use capers towards the end of the process of making a meal. That way, the capers won’t cook down and lose their shape and flavor.
Can Capers Expire?
Since capers are usually pickled, they tend to have an exceptionally long shelf life. That means you’ll be able to use your capers for several months before they go bad.
To play it safe, it’s best to stick to using canned and jarred foods like capers within the boundaries of the printed expiration date. Capers can usually be used in cooking for up to nine months when stored in the refrigerator, even after they’ve been opened. When your capers are still waiting to be used, store them at room temperature in a cabinet.
Capers certainly can expire, but it takes a long time for them to go bad. Pay attention to expiration dates to determine whether your capers are still safe to use, as well as the way the capers look and smell. Fresh capers should have a neutral, if mildly salty, smell, but expired ones may smell nasty and look discolored.
Can You Make Your Own Capers?
If you live in a part of the world where caper bushes grow, now’s the time to try something new – making your own capers at home. It all starts with picking caper buds.
When picking caper buds in the wild, make sure to keep these tips in mind.
- Caper bushes can be thorny, so it’s best to wear gloves to protect your hands and arms from getting scratched or cut.
- Bring something with you – a jar, for instance – to transport the caper buds safely back home.
- While the leaves and roots of the caper bush have culinary uses, it’s best to leave the rest of the bush alone and simply harvest the buds.
Soak Your Capers Before Pickling Them
Once you’ve successfully returned home with a cache of capers, it’s time to soak them. Unpickled, unsoaked caper buds taste pretty bad, so you definitely won’t want to taste them before they’re fully prepared. Fill up a jar with water and let the caper buds soak in the jar for a full 24 hours. Avoid using water that is too warm or too cold – room temperature water is perfectly fine.
After 24 hours, pour out the soaking water from the jar, straining out the capers with a net or colander. Once the water is fully drained, put the capers back in the jar and refill the jar with water. Let the capers soak for another 24 hours in the water, then repeat the process.
It’s Pickling Time
Once the capers have soaked for a total of 72 hours, it’s finally time to start pickling. To begin, you’ll need to make brine.
- Brine consists of equal parts vinegar and water, plus one tablespoon of salt per cup of the vinegar and water mixture. If you like, you can swap out standard white vinegar for apple cider or wine-based vinegar.
- After combining your ingredients, boil the brine on the stove and stir the salt in to let it dissolve thoroughly. Once the brine has boiled and the ingredients have been thoroughly mixed, let the mixture cool on the stovetop for a half hour.
- Next, add the capers and brine to a jar and let the jar sit in the refrigerator. The capers will take on their characteristic salty, briny taste and be ready to eat in as little as a week. However, it’s best to wait longer, giving the capers as long as a month to reach their full flavor potential.
Add Capers to Tonight’s Dinner
At Jow, we’ve got an abundance of recipes that pair perfectly with your capers – either homemade ones or the store-bought variety. Some of our top picks for dishes to make with capers are:
- Our Sicilian-style pasta, which features large shells and juicy cherry tomatoes
- Our Puttanesca pizza, which gets its salty, tangy flavor from anchovies, olives, and capers
- Cod Puttanesca pasta, another zesty Mediterranean dish that tastes even better with the addition of salty capers.
- Or if you're in the mood for something super easy, a simple avocado & caper salad will do the trick!
Try any of these recipes, and we guarantee you’ll love the results! In addition, you can find plenty more creative, delicious dishes to make on our cooking page.