If you haven’t yet been turned onto the glory of capers, this fact sheet will change your life—or at least your mealtimes. Capers, those unassuming little green things that come in a jar and appear atop bagels and chicken picatta, are a pantry powerhouse. Just wait ‘til we get to frying them!
But first things first: Did you know that capers are actually flower buds that have been pickled? Before they’ve had a chance to turn into flower, the buds are picked from a shrub-like bush technically called Capparis spinosa but commonly called the caper bush. They’re then dried in the sun and brined or packed in salt.
Origin: Dried, pickled flower buds commonly grown in the Mediterranean and parts of Asia and Australia
Often used in: Creamy or lemony pastas, fatty dishes, salads, or as a garnish; very versatile ingredient
Substitutes: Chopped green olives
Caper plants are grown in the Mediterranean, and also sometimes in parts of Asia and Australia. The capers grown on Pantelleria, a small island off the coast of Sicily, are said to be the best in the world.
Pro tip: Based off the information readily available on the internet, you may read that smaller capers are more desirable, but when food writer David Rosengarten traveled to Pantelleria to learn more about this special ingredient, locals told him that bigger capers were actually more flavorful. The one downside is that because they’re closer to flowering, they might not hold together as well. But that could make for nice flavor distribution, depending how you use them. Our advice? Experiment to find the size you like.
What About Caperberries?
Caperberries, those things that look like a cross between an olive and caper that you’ll sometimes see as cocktail garnishes or cheese plate mystery items, are the fruit from the caper plants. So if the caper buds have not been harvested, they’ll flower, and the resulting fruit from the plant is your caperberry. Being fruit, they have seeds inside, so texturally they're different from smaller, seedless capers.
What Capers Taste Like
In a word: salty. But there’s more going on than just salt, thanks to the brine. Capers taste vinegary, acidic, and downright delightful.
Where to Buy Capers
Brined capers are available in most grocery stores and specialty food shops in the US. If you’re outside of the US, you may find salt-packed capers, which should be rinsed in warm water before using and may taste more floral than the brined capers.
How to Store Capers
Opened, brine-packed jars of capers will last in the refrigerator for up to 9 months. You can store unopened caper jars in the pantry. Salt-packed capers will last up to 6 months in the pantry.
How to Use Capers
- Sprinkled on top: Use these babies as a garnish on top of everything from pasta and seafood to bagels. The bursts of acid and salt do great things for creamy or lemony pasta, or bagels with a good shmear.
- Mixed in: These tiny salt bombs are also great devices for cutting through the fat in a sauce—say a Bearnaise sauce served over steak, the mayo in your potato salad, or the brown butter in your sole meuniere. Mix capers in at the end or, for a mellower flavor, while your sauce cooks.
- Fried: Fry capers once and you’ll be searching for excuses to eat them for the rest of time. Pat 1-2 tablespoons of capers dry on a towel. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, heat 1/4 cup of vegetable oil. Fry capers for 45-90 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a paper towel-lined plate. They’re excellent on top of scallops, eggplant, or even on their own, preferably alongside a cocktail.
- Chopped: Chopped up, capers make a great addition to tuna salad, potato salad, really any salad where a burst of acidity would be welcome.
- A Fine brine: Don’t overlook the brine, either. Like pickle juice, it can serve as a bracing last minute addition to a pan sauce, mayo, or marinade. Does your Bloody Mary need a little something-something? Add a teaspoon of this salty goodness!
If you’ve run out of capers or didn’t have any on hand to begin with (shame on you! We kid…), then chopped green olives serve as a fine substitute. You may need to adjust the salt in the dish to make up for the lack of our little salt bombs, however.