What Are Capers? – Complete Guide about capers
Capers are the immature, unripened, green flower buds of the caper bush (Capparis spinosa or Capparis inermis). The plant is cultivated in Italy, Morocco, and Spain, as well as Asia and Australia.
It’s most often associated with Mediterranean cuisines but enjoyed worldwide. Brined or dried, the caper is valued for the burst of flavor it gives to dishes. It adds texture and tanginess to a great variety of recipes, including fish dishes, pasta, stews, and sauces.
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What Are Capers?
The caper is a prickly perennial plant native to the Mediterranean and some parts of Asia. Its use dates back to 2,000 B.C. where it’s mentioned as a food in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh.
To turn the unripened bud into the salty green pea-sized ball, it is dried in the sun and then pickled in vinegar, brine, wine, or salt. The curing brings out the tangy lemon-like flavor, which is similar to green olives.
Caper vs. Caperberry: What’s the difference?
The caper is not the same as the caperberry. Capers are the unopened buds of the caper bush that are pickled and often used as a seasoning or garnish.
A caperberry is the fruit of the caper bush; it is generally found with the stem on and, as the caper, is pickled. Caperberries tend to be starchier and less piquant than capers, and are often served with cocktails the way you might serve olives.
Capers, though quite small, pack a big punch: They’re quite tangy and add a lemony, olivey burst of flavor to dishes.
The caper’s intensity comes from the mustard oil (methyl isothiocyanate) that is released from glucocapparin molecules.
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Varieties of Capers
Commercial capers are designated and sold by size. The buds range from tiny (about the size of a baby petite green pea) to the size of a small olive. Generally, the smallest caper will have the most delicate texture and better flavor. A larger caper is more acidic, so it is best to use these more sparingly.
The smallest variety-about 1/4-inch or 7mm in diameter-is from the south of France. Called French nonpareils, they are the most prized and come with an equally notable price tag. It’s also relatively easy to find surfines capers
- Surfines Capers which are a little bigger (7mm to 8mm).
- Capucines (8mm to 9mm)
- capotes (9mm to 11mm)
- fines (11mm to 13mm, and grusas (over 14mm) are less common.
Uses Of Capers
Capers have long been a favorite in the Mediterranean region. They are well-known for being a star ingredient in the Italian recipes chicken piccata and pasta puttanesca.
The French add them to skate meunier with browned butter and they’re an essential ingredient for a number of Spanish tapas. In India, the fruits and buds of the plant are pickled. In the U.S., they’re used to garnish and add acid to a New York-style bagel with nova lox and cream cheese.
These small, green buds can lend a piquant sour and salty flavor to many other recipes. There’s little prep needed and they can simply be added to salads (including pasta, chicken, and potato salads), used as a condiment or garnish, or chopped finely for dressings and sauces.
They’re also cooked with roasted vegetables and a variety of main dishes or used as a pizza topping. The burst of salt and acid is a great complement to fish, especially rich ones such as salmon, as well as lamb.
Quite often, you’ll find capers partnered with lemon, which complements their natural lemon-olive flavor. Cheese and nuts are other popular complements.
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How do you use capers in recipes?
“You can use them in any kind of seafood preparation or anywhere that you want to add salt. They are a great agent for salt in a pan sauce,” says Dalton.
“You can fry them and use as a garnish for beef carpaccio or use them in dishes like eggplant caviar or as a garnish on top of fish.” He suggests frying them until they’re crispy before sprinkling them onto your dish.
Some common recipes you’ll find capers used in include:
- Pasta Puttanesca
- Bagel and Lox
- Tuna Salad
- Chicken Piccata
- Lemon Caper Butter Pan Sauce for Fish or Scallops
Where to Buy Capers
Well-stocked grocery stores, supermarkets, and natural food stores should offer at least one jar of capers for sale. They can also be found a specialty and gourmet food stores as well as online. Capers are typically packaged in small jars, no more than four ounces, in a vinegar brine.
You can find them in the pickled food aisle alongside olives. Smaller nonpareil capers are more expensive than larger capers and are comparable in price to jars of gourmet olives.
In their native regions, caper bushes grow wild and the buds can be foraged. The caper spurge plant (Euphorbia lathyris) is a similar looking plant that is poisonous, so correct identification is vital. Backyard gardeners can also plant the bush from seeds or cuttings.
The plant can tolerate heat but not cold, and should be overwintered indoors in northern climates. Harvest the caper according to your preferred size, then preserve the buds in brine.
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Are capers good for you?
“Capers not only add noticeable flavor to any dish, but also give you some nutrients such as copper, fiber, and, believe it or not, a small amount of protein,” says Swift.
Swift says the piquant flavor comes primarily from the salt. More specifically, just one tablespoon of capers consists of 202 milligrams of sodium, which is about 9 percent of your daily needs.
This might not sound like a lot, but if you’re garnishing this salty ingredient on top of an already sodium-filled pasta sauce or a seasoned piece of fish, the number could get high very quickly.
Nonetheless, you should become familiar with capers, as they serve as a nice accent to any savory dish!
Capers may be packed in brine or salt and this will determine how they should be stored; both should be in an airtight container.
Brine-packed capers should be completely submerged and will keep for nine months or longer in the refrigerator. Unopened jars can be stored in the pantry. Salt-packed capers can be stored at room temperature for up to six months.
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Foul odors and dark coloration in the jar (aside from any spices that may be included) are signs that the capers have gone bad and need to be discarded.
Nutrition and Benefits
Capers are a low-calorie, low-carb, and low-fat food.1 They’re generally not eaten in big enough quantities (due to the taste) to contribute any significant nutritional value, but they are high in vitamin K and good sources of copper, iron, and magnesium.
Capers are very high in sodium because of the curing process, a factor that may influence their use for anyone watching their salt intake.
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