What Are Capers?

All the questions you’ve always wondered from where they come from, to how to cook them.

June 16, 2021
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1312070713

Chicken piccata on white table directly above. Chicken breast dredged in flour and cooked in sauce cantaining lemon juice, butter and capers.

Photo by: Olga Mazyarkina/Getty Images

Olga Mazyarkina/Getty Images

By Layla Khoury-Hanold for Food Network Kitchen

Layla Khoury-Hanold is a contributor at Food Network.

If you’ve ever followed a chicken piccata recipe, you know that capers are indispensable for finishing the dish. Or maybe you recognize the name from the mysterious jars in the pickle aisle that contain these pea-sized green orbs. But what is a caper? Let’s explore.

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1210172575

Top view of marinated caper flower buds in bowl on white marble background

Photo by: victoriya89/Getty Images

victoriya89/Getty Images

What is a Caper and Where Do Capers Come From?

Capers come from a prickly bush called capparis spinosa that grows wild across the Mediterranean and parts of Asia. The capers we see in the grocery store are the un-ripened green flower buds of the plant. Once they’re picked, the immature buds are dried and then preserved. Capers are either cured in salt or pickled in brine, which is what gives capers their trademark savory, briny flavor profile.

Caper Flavor

The taste of a caper is reminiscent of the lemony tang and brininess of green olives, but with a smack of floral tartness all their own. Because they’re packed in brine, capers also boast a bold salty, savory flavor profile.

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1125583636

Slices of toast with smoked salmon, caperberries, onion rings, and coffee

Photo by: Westend61/Getty Images

Westend61/Getty Images

What are Capers Used For?

Capers are commonly used in Mediterranean cuisine, particularly in seafood dishes such as baked fish and pasta sauces such as puttanesca sauce. But they also add a briny, savory, lemony hit to all kinds of dishes, including signature caper recipes like chicken piccata. They also provide a tangy counterpoint to rich dishes such as hearty stews, lamb or cheese. In the U.S., capers are often served with appetizing spreads and used to garnish bagels, cream cheese and lox. When they’re finely chopped, capers provide a bright, briny backbone to tapenade, sauces, dressings and compound butters. Capers can also be fried to create a crispy garnish.

Caper Varieties and Sizes

Capers come in different varieties according to size. They include nonpareils, which are about 1/4-inch-wide or 7mm in diameter and come from the south of France (you’ll also see them labeled as French nonpareils). This is the smallest variety available, and they tend to have a more concentrated flavor and delicate texture. As a result, they tend to be more prized and have a higher price tag to match.

Other readily available caper varieties include surfines (7mm to 8mm), capucines (8mm to 9mm), capotes (9mm to 11mm) and fines (11mm to 13mm). Grusas, which measure over 14mm in diameter, are less common. Larger capers tend to be more acidic, so adjust your recipe accordingly or use sparingly.

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Group of eight whole four slices of pickled green caper on wooden cutting board on round bamboo coaster in bamboo bowl on white wood

Photo by: Kateryna Bibro/Getty Images

Kateryna Bibro/Getty Images

Capers vs. Caperberries

If the caper isn’t harvested as an immature bud, it grows into a caperberry. A caperberry is about the same size as a small olive and has a long stem. Caperberries also have small, kiwi-like seeds inside. Their larger size makes them softer in texture than capers, and they don’t have the same piquancy, so they shouldn’t be used interchangeably in recipes that call for capers. Like capers, caperberries are pickled; try adding them to an antipasto platter or to garnish savory cocktails like Bloody Marys.

Caper Substitute

Because capers have such a distinct bright, briny flavor, it can be challenging to substitute, so it’s worth keeping a jar in your pantry. If you’re in a pinch, substitute a 1:1 ratio of finely chopped green olives. (So, one tablespoon of chopped green olives for one tablespoon of capers, for example.) Kalamata olives work too, but don’t tend to be as tangy as green olives.

Are Capers Good For You?

Capers are considered a low-calorie food, but since they aren’t eaten in high quantities, they don’t offer any significant nutritional value. However, they contain nutrients such as vitamins A, E and K and are a source of copper, iron and magnesium. Because capers are packed in brine, which is made with high quantities of salt, use sparingly if you’re watching your sodium intake.

Classic 100 Lemon Chicken Piccata

Photo by: Caitlin Ochs

Caitlin Ochs

Capers Recipes

Capers have a unique, some might say acquired, flavor, but they are versatile, too. If you’re hoping to preserve their shape, color and flavor, it’s best to add capers later in the cooking process, or to finish a dish. If the capers are large or you’re cooking with other assertive flavors, some recipes might call for rinsing the capers first. Some recipes also make use of the flavor-packed brine, so don’t toss the good stuff.

Capers are an indispensable ingredient in any chicken piccata recipe. Here, capers team up with lemon juice and zest to brighten up a butter-based pan sauce. The glossy, tangy sauce coats the chicken, transforming boneless, skinless chicken breasts into a five-star meal.

Pork chops step in for chicken in this easy 30-minute piccata recipe, but the signature capers remain. They’re a must for adding a briny finish to the white wine-butter sauce; because they’re added near the end of cooking time, they lend a pop of texture, too.

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CATFISH_PICATTA_010.tif

Food Stylist: Jamie Kimm Prop Stylist: Marina Malchin ,Food Stylist: Jamie KimmProp Stylist: Marina Malchin

Photo by: Antonis Achilleos Prop Stylist: Marina Malchin 917 751 2855

Antonis Achilleos Prop Stylist: Marina Malchin 917 751 2855

For this pan-fried fish take on piccata, capers are fried over high heat until crisp, then sprinkled over the tender fish filets for a crunchy flourish. Serve with lemon wedges and a mixed greens salad, and you’ve got a flavor-bomb dinner in 30 minutes.

Linguine Puttanesca

Linguine Puttanesca

Pasta and a Spicy Melange in a White Dish

©Food: Jaime Kimm Prop: Marina Malchin

Food: Jaime Kimm Prop: Marina Malchin

This back-pocket pasta dish comes together quickly using pantry staples such as dried pasta, canned tuna, olives and capers. The capers and olives are fried with toasted garlic and red pepper flakes, then simmered with crushed tomatoes and their juices to create a savory sauce that makes a fine match for oil-packed tuna.

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PastaMozzTom_023.tif

Photo by: Christopher Testani

Christopher Testani

This riff on pasta puttanesca features capers two ways: One tablespoon gets minced with garlic and red pepper flakes to make a paste that melds into a savory sauce when tossed with the warm pasta and cheese, while another tablespoon of whole capers is tossed with tomatoes, kalamata olives and butter, adding a tangy hit to cut the richness of fresh mozzarella.

Photo by: Matt Armendariz ©2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Matt Armendariz, 2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Two words: caper butter. Capers and their brine are mashed together with softened butter, parsley and lemon zest to make a compound butter that melts into a luxurious sauce when dolloped onto sizzling roasted cauliflower steaks. Save leftover caper butter and add to pasta, grilled vegetables, fish, lamb chops or steaks.

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