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All There is to Know About Capers

Use this guide to learn more about this delicious ingredient.

You often spot them included on the menu at your favorite restaurants and spot them in jars on the shelves at your local grocery store. But what are these little green things known as capers? Where do they come from? And most importantly, what do they taste like and how do you cook with them?

capers in a glass bowl

Capers are the small, pickled buds from the Capparis shrub which is native to the Mediterranean. These flower buds are picked by hand from the Capparis shrub and are then dried in the sun. Once the capers have become dried out they are then pickled in brine, wine, vinegar, or salt. This stage is known as curing, and it works to bring out the unique lemon taste of the capers. 

This tasty culinary treat is roughly the size of corn kernels, and is popular with fish dishes or used to create tartar sauce. You will find that a lot of Italian and Greek cuisine features capers as an ingredient. Capers are a favorite garnish or seasoning in these dishes, and can really give your food the lemony kick it needs to lift the flavor.


What do Capers Taste Like?

Don’t let their small size fool you. Capers may be small, but these pickled flower buds pack a flavorful punch. They have a unique lemon flavor which is often compared to olives, and they have a signature tang that blends well with a variety of dishes. This intense flavor comes from their mustard oil, which becomes released thanks to the glucocapparin molecules.

You will notice that capers can add a tangy, salty addition to your dishes. This is of course because of how they are packed, often in brine or salt.


Different Types of Capers

There are many types of capers to choose from, and this mostly comes down to the maturity of the flower bud before it is picked. 

They are usually sold in these different sizes, and the flavor can vary depending on the size of the capers that you pick. Capers can range from the size of a small olive at their largest down to the size of a little, baby pea at their smallest.

bowls of different types of capers

Smaller capers such as the nonpareils tend to be one of the most popular because of their delicate flavor and texture. These are often pricey because of their popularity. The larger the capers, the more acidic they are. This often means that large capers such as grusas need to be used sparingly, otherwise, they will overwhelm your dish.

The name of the caper variety will differ depending on their size.

  • Nonpareils – usually 7mm in diameter, idealized because of its more palatable flavor and delicate texture
  • Surfines – anywhere between 7mm and 8mm in diameter
  • Capucines – anywhere between 8mm and 9mm in diameter
  • Capotes – typically between 9mm and 11mm in diameter
  • Fines – usually around 11mm to 13mm in diameter
  • Grusas – anything over 14mm in diameter, typically more acidic than other smaller capers

The best capers for your needs will depend on the dish that you are trying to make. The delicate flavor of the nonpareils makes this a lot more versatile than the larger varieties such as capotes, fines, and grusas. Surfines is another popular choice, and is widely available However, if you’re looking for a punchy, acidic flavor to give your dish that extra kick, these larger capers will be ideal.


Capers vs Caperberries: What’s the Difference?

Even though they come from the same plant, you shouldn’t confuse capers for their cousin the caper berry. 

pickled caperberries

Caperberries are the fruit of the plant and are what happens when unpicked capers are allowed to flower. These flower buds produce beautiful pink and white flowers which will then produce the tasty caper berry if left on the plant.

These berries are much larger than their unripened counterparts and are roughly the size of an olive. These fruits have small seeds inside that appear very similar to those of kiwi seeds.

Both capers and caper berries are edible and tend to be pickled before they are consumed. Caperberries lend themselves well to use as a garnish in cocktails. Why not try caper berries as a garnish for your bloody mary or martini?


Cooking With Capers

Capers are a wonderfully versatile ingredient that can be used in a wide variety of dishes. They tend to be very popular in Mediterranean dishes such as Italian and Greek food. Capers can be used as a diced ingredient in dishes or as a garnish. There is often very little preparation needed to use capers in a dish, so they tend to be added towards the end of the cooking process. 

They also have a very strong flavor despite their small size, so you should use these sparingly in your cooking. This will also depend on the variety of capers that you opt for, of course, with the larger capers being more acidic in flavor.

This pickled ingredient is very popular in seafood dishes because its lemony flavor pairs well with fish. You will find capers used with salmon, tuna, lox, scallops, and many other fish dishes. It is also the main ingredient in fresh tartar sauce, which is also used with classic fish recipes. They also work well as a topping on pizza.

pieces of grouper topped with capers

Not a fan of fish? Then try pairing your capers with chicken, lamb, or pork.

Using capers in sauces can help to give your dish the salty kick it needs. You can add these straight out of the jar into your favorite dishes, or you can even fry them for a few minutes beforehand to give them a little extra crunch. Lemon is another flavor that pairs well with capers, as well as nuts and cheese.

You may find that you need to rinse your capers off before you use them in your cooking. This is because if the capers have been packed with salt, they can be intensely salty. Giving your capers a light rinse under water can help to remove some of this salt, and reduce the intensity of the saltiness you add to your dish.

If you opt for capers that have been stored in brine, you can also use this brine in your dishes. Why not use it as a substitute for olive juice in a dirty martini? Or you can also add the caper brine to mayonnaise to create a dressing for your favorite dishes.


How to Store Capers

The best way to store your capers will depend on how they have been packaged. Unopened jars of capers stored in brine can be stored in a cool, dark place in your pantry. Capers stored in salt can also be stored in your pantry at room temperature for up to 6 months in total. Your capers will need to be stored in an airtight container to ensure that they can stay fresh and ready to use.

jars of capers

Open jars of capers will need to be stored in your refrigerator. You will need to ensure that the jar is airtight, and this can then be stored in your refrigerator for up to 9 months. If you notice your capers start to produce an unpleasant odor and the jar shows a darker coloration, then it will be time to discard them. 

Ensure that the capers are sufficiently covered in the brine to keep them fresher.


Where to Buy Capers

Capers are widely available throughout the year. You should be able to find the more common jarred brined capers at your local grocery store. These will typically be stored alongside other pickled goods, or with olives and similar delicacies.

It will be worth noting that the smaller, tastier nonpareils will be much more expensive than the larger caper varieties. This is because they have a delicate flavor and texture, so are the more desired variety of capers.


Caper Substitutes

Sometimes despite your best efforts, you might not be able to find capers in your local grocery store. Or perhaps you had a particular variety in mind and weren’t able to get hold of them. Maybe you’re not a big fan of capers and need a tasty alternative that will still give you the similar flavor that you’re after in your dish.

Here are a few substitutes that you can use in place of capers.

Chopped Green Olives

This is arguably one of the easiest substitutions you can make for capers. Chopped green olives will help you to get that same briny flavor that you’re after. This is an alternative that is also widely available.

Green olives have a milder flavor and are much larger than capers, so it will be worth chopping these up if you need to substitute them for capers.

Pickled Artichoke Hearts

bowl of pickled artichoke hearts

These make another fantastic substitute for capers. You’ll get a similar flavor profile and texture with pickled artichoke hearts.

Pickled Gherkin

This substitution has a similar flavor profile and can match the briny taste of capers.

Thyme

A herby alternative to capers is thyme. This pungent herb can match the potency in flavor, however, the texture won’t be an exact match.

Pickled Nasturtium Seeds

pickled nasturtium seeds

While these may be a little trickier to find in your local grocery store, they will also give you a similar flavor profile to capers.


Final Thoughts

So there you have it! Capers are the pickled flower buds of the Capparis shrub that is native to the Mediterranean. There are different varieties of capers, varying in size and flavor. They can be packaged in brine or salt, and pack a flavorful punch.

Capers are a wonderfully versatile ingredient that you won’t need a lot of to make the most of their taste.

What’s your favorite way to cook with capers? Let us know in a comment down below!

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Written by Rocco Smith

Rocco is from Sanibel Island, Florida, and a recent graduate of Florida State University with a Bachelor’s in Editing, Writing, and Media. With seven years’ experience in the restaurant industry as a cook, server, bartender, and more, he is deeply passionate about intertwining his fondness for food with his love of language.