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What Is a Caper?
A caper is the unopened flower bud of the caper bush (Capparis spinosa, also known as Flinders rose), a perennial plant native to the Mediterranean. It’s said that the world’s best capers come from Pantelleria, a Sicilian island in Italy where the plants grow wild. The small fruits of the plant, called caper berries, are also edible. It’s necessary to cure capers before consuming them, and this is done either by salting, brining in a solution of salt and water, or pickling in vinegar, salt, and water. Salt-cured capers, though the most time-consuming of the traditional techniques, results in the most intense flavors.
Five Important Facts About Capers
From size and shape to flavor here are five important things to know about capers:
- Caper buds, usually just called capers, resemble small, dark green pearls about the size of a corn kernel.
- Capers have a sharp salty flavor that lends itself well to seasoning.
- Capers are picked in the early spring, in the short window before they open up into a white flower with striking purple stamens.
- If the flower is allowed to bloom fully and fall off the vine, it is replaced by a fruit later in the season, which is called a caper berry.
- Caper berries are the size of an olive, and resemble cherries with their attached stems. The seeds lining the inside are also edible and add crunch to the berry’s texture.
What Does ‘Non-Pareil’ Mean?
The term ‘non-pareil’ appears frequently on jars on capers, and is a distinction of both size and quality. A French term meaning ‘has no equal,’ non-pareil capers are simply buds that measure under 7mm and are thought to be the most delicate product on the market, with a tighter, firmer texture. They are widely misunderstood to be of higher quality, however—the flavor profiles of various caper sizes are a matter of personal taste. Smaller buds have a more subdued flavor than those that are later in the blooming stage.
What Cuisines Use Capers?
Chopped or whole, capers give a burst of flavor to everything from tomato sauce to salad dressings. They’re found in regional recipes all over the world.
- Italy. Italians in particular know the power of a generous handful of capers in waking up the palate and adding texture. It’s the birthplace of piccata, after all, whose signature sauce of lemon juice, butter, and capers lays a zingy, complex foundation for veal, seafood, or the reigning favorite of the US—chicken piccata. In pasta puttanesca, capers meet pressed garlic, briny anchovy paste, dark and fruity Kalamata olives, plus red chili flakes, all stewed together with whole tomatoes and olive oil. It also appears in a local variation of pesto, in which tomatoes, almonds, and capers take the place of basil.
- Spain. Capers epitomize the simple, ingredient-forward cuisine of Spain, appearing over grilled fish, alongside jamón as a peperonata with olives and sweet peppers, or mixed into a Valencian-style paella with tomatoes and saffron. They’re a triple threat in condiments like salsa verde, where they bring vinegar, salt, and a floral note to fresh green herbs and garlic.
- France. Not to be outdone, France brought the world tartar sauce, in which finely chopped capers (along with lemon juice, herbs like tarragon and dill, and occasionally traditional pickles like gherkins) turn mayonnaise into a tangy, creamy complement to fish dishes like fried clams, crab cakes, and fish and chips. Tartar sauce is also the basis for remoulade, which gets an addition of vinegar, mustard, and shallots to punch up the pickled undercurrent of the condiment.
- Turkey. In Turkey, capers are a recurring star of vegetable-forward meze feasts, often added to vegetables like eggplant or mixed into fava, a bean paté made with dried fava beans, lemon, garlic and olive oil. It’s also a great addition to dishes like menemen, which features scrambled eggs, tomatoes, and green peppers.
- New York. The undisputed best way to crown a fresh bagel topped with cream cheese, lox, and red onion is with capers. The scattered pops of salty vinegar amid the muted softness of the cheese, the smoke of cured fish, and the bite of raw onion is a prime example of the brilliance of the caper: understated, but a defining feature of a classic.