Real Food Encyclopedia | Capers
Small environmental impact, big flavor, capers are nature’s gift to the cook. Capers are rugged little nuggets from a bush that will grow wherever it is left alone long enough to do so — in a crack in the pavement, between the bricks of a wall — there is no place too inhospitable for the intrepid caper. And their taste is a treat. To “caper” is defined in Webster’s as “to skip or dance about in a lively or playful way,” and that’s an apt description of pungent, sprightly capers.
Fun Facts about Capers
- The caper bush is also called a Flinders Rose.
- The white spots that appear on some pickled capers are crystalized rutin, a flavonoid.
- Caper flowers are beautiful with delicate white petals that surround an eruption of purple stamens but are short-lived, lasting only a few hours on the vine before wilting.
- Capers contain isothiocyanates, the compound that gives cress, mustard and horseradish its bite and they share the same peppery, mustardy flavor.
What to Look for When Buying Capers
Like olives, capers are unpalatable fresh, so they need to be cured to be enjoyed. Capers can be cured in a brine, in vinegar or in salt. These curing processes not only preserve capers but brings out their flavor. Caper purists insist that salt cured capers maintain more floral notes and are the superior bud.
Like chilies, the smaller, the more punch they pack. Nonpareilles or surfines (which measure one centimeter or less) are the smallest, most expensive and most flavorful caper. Look for larger capers, capucines and communes (more than 1.5 centimeters in diameter) to spend a little less.
French capers are said to have a more peppery flavor and are most frequently cured in vinegar. Sicily, however, has the distinction in many culinary circles of producing the best capers in the world. They are prized for having superior flavor and texture, attributed to the rich volcanic soil in which they grow. On southern Italian islands famous for their capers, such as Pantelleria and Salina, capers are cured exclusively in sea salt.
Sustainability of Capers
Caper bushes are a rugged breed. Unlike many crops that require careful tending and oversight, caper bushes grow and produce prolifically all on their own without the need for copious amounts of pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, making for a pretty sustainable plant. In fact, capers grow wild and vigorously with zero care in a manner so determined to thrive they nearly thumb their nose at nature. They will find a home in the cracks and crevices of stone pathways and walls. They grow in nutrient-poor soil. The bushes’ ability to tolerate significant exposure to salt makes them a common feature in coastal landscapes where they muscle through regular sea spray.
A scant water supply is optimal for this arid-loving plant. And they are free of disease and pests. You can find these opportunistic plants making themselves at home where they please, in the most conspicuous places, such as the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Because capers are a preserved product, they are available year-round.
Capers and Geography
Capers are grown commercially in Morocco, Spain and Italy, France and Algeria. You can find caper bushes growing wild all over the Mediterranean, Middle East and Northern Africa.
Caper bushes are thorny, trailing shrubs that love dry heat and intense sunlight. They prefer rocky, dry terrain. They thrive in areas where the mercury climbs into the triple digits but are cold hardy as well, able to withstand sub-freezing temps. Caper bushes grow about three feet tall but spread out, umbrella-like, blanketing the ground around them. This is a growth pattern that creates its own mulch and shade, helping the plants conserve water in the arid regions in which they grow.
Capers themselves are the buds of the bushes’ flowers (before they bloom). Capers must be handpicked and harvested just before blooming. In the summer season, the bushes are visited every 10 to 12 days to catch the individual flower buds in the optimum stage of ripeness.
If the flower does bloom, it develops fruits that are about the size and shape of a medium olive — caper berries. These berries are also cured in either vinegar or salt.
Capers are a cured food that are built to be shelf stable, so they have some staying power. Even an open bottle of capers, if the buds are kept submerged under their brine, will last for up to a year in the refrigerator. Capers packed in salt will last for about a year from harvest. Bright white salt indicates freshness.
Cooking with Capers
Many parts of the caper plant can be cooked with: the young, tender leaves can be cooked like a vegetable and their flower buds and fruits are cured and pickled. The bark, thorns, leaves and roots of the caper bush are used medicinally.
Capers are the little flower that could in the kitchen, offering big flavor in a tiny package. Here are just a few ways to bring them to your table:
- Put capers in sauces: If you are new to capers, the classic Italian dish, Chicken Piccata, is a fine place to start. Tart lemon, rich butter and salty capers: A more perfect match for the little flower buds probably doesn’t exist.
- Add capers to pasta dishes: If you have pasta and capers in your pantry, you have dinner. These two basic ingredients set the stage for any other willing participants you have on hand. Add some roasted vegetables and a few glugs of olive oil and you have a mellowed primavera. Nothing fresh on hand? No problem. You can throw together a Pasta Puttanesca from the cupboard staples.
- Make appetizers with capers: Caponata, the Italian appetizer, is traditionally made with eggplant, but you can add in any assortment of vegetables you like to this quickly braised dish. The capers tie the flavors together.
- Use capers as condiments: A few capers sprinkled in with your sandwich fixings bring a capricious little flavor bomb to your midday meal. A BLT is a fine thing, indeed. A BLT with a few capers snuck in is a gourmet treat. A scattering of them on a lox and cream cheese bagel, perhaps with a few slices of red onion, a squeeze of lemon and a couple grinds of black pepper the best way to enjoy this deli staple.
- Fry those capers! A gorgeous garnish, fried capers maintain their salty goodness with the added benefit of a satisfying crunch. Add them to any dish that will benefit from a little flavor pop. Use them to top salads, grilled fish or vegetables or strew a couple on a platter of antipasti.
Capers have numerous health benefits and have been valued for these properties since ancient times. They are said to aid in digestion and reduce flatulence and have been used to treat anemia and improve the skin. Capers are low in calories but very high in antioxidants that may help protect against heart disease and some cancers.