What are Capers?

Have you ever wondered where capers come from, or even what they are? Capers are a wonderful addition to so many foods. At the inn, we use them in our potato-caper omelets to add a fresh tangy flavor. Capers are a common ingredient in mediterranean dishes and Italian dishes such as chicken piccata. They’re also used in salads and sauces, and are a key ingredient in tartar sauce.  Capers have also found their way in to the occasional martini!

Capers are actually the immature flower buds of the caper bush, Capparis spinosa.  The buds are harvested prior to flowering and are usually sun-dried, then pickled in a vinegar brine, or sometimes with wine.  They are typically packaged in brine solution or in salt.  Don’t forget to rinse them under running water before use or they’ll be way too salty!

If the buds are left to flower, they produce a fruit called the caper berry, which is larger and bears some resemblance to an olive.  Caper berries, which are less salty than the caper buds, are usually eaten as snacks or added to salads.

Capers are categorized and sold by their size, with the smallest size being the most desirable coming from the south of France. Larger capers are stronger in flavor and less aromatic. Sizes include non-pareil (0-7 mm), surfines (7-8 mm), capucines (8-9 mm), capotes (9-11 mm), fines (11-13 mm), and grusas (larger than 13 mm). Interestingly, unripe nasturtium seeds can be used as a substitute for capers when they’re pickled since they have a very similar texture and flavor.

Well, there you have it!  I’m sure you’ll remember us the next time you’re on Jeopardy! and Alex says, “It’s the unopened flower bud that’s sun-dried, pickled, and brined that lends a distinctive piquant flavor to foods and sauces.”  You’ll press your clicker confidently and answer, “What are capers, Alex”.