All About Capers, the Powerhouse Pantry Staple

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik except where noted]

For such tiny green buds, capers can be a remarkably polarizing ingredient. Bold, briny, and powerfully salty, they tend to fall into the same love-it-or-hate-it category as olives and anchovies. But, while saltiness may be their high note, capers—like olives and anchovies, for that matter—bring exceptional depth and character to cooked and raw dishes alike. "They're vegetal, they're intense. You can't substitute salt in a recipe that calls for capers," says cookbook author Cathy Barrow. A little sour, a little floral, "they're like tiny, tiny pickles," she adds.

In fact, given their exceptionally small size, I'd wager that capers have one of the highest flavor-to-size ratios in your pantry. Provided you have them, of course—and you really should. But what exactly is a caper, what does it have to do with the caper berry, and how should you use them? Let's take a look.

The Anatomy of a Caper

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Technically speaking, capers are flower buds, harvested from a bush called Capparis spinosa. The plant, also known as the caper bush or Flinders rose, thrives across the Mediterranean rim, from Spain to Israel. The salt water–tolerant plant can survive—and even flourish—in extreme drought. That may explain why some of the most celebrated capers come from the island of Pantelleria, roughly 100 kilometers southwest of Sicily, which, save rain, has no fresh water source at all.

The buds are picked, cured, and sorted into six sizes, from the largest, grusas, which can be up to 14 millimeters in diameter, to the smallest, non-pareils, which are half that size. Harvesting capers is an arduous process—the tiny buds can be picked only by hand, and, as a result, the smaller the caper, the more expensive it is. American supermarkets tend to stock slender jars of the precious non-pareils, but some argue that this "smaller is better" attitude in the caper world is a myth in need of debunking: "The big ones are much more flavorful," notes journalist and cookbook author David Rosengarten. "The downside with the larger ones is they are not quite as tight in texture, they're not quite as firm, they have a flower inside them waiting to break out. However, they have developed to the most gorgeous flavor." That said, another way to consider size is based on the caper's intended function. Small capers are the firmest and thus best suited to play a garnishing or finishing role, while the largest—soft, but more flavorful—work best in sauces and stews.

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When Capparis spinosa buds are instead allowed to mature, they give way to white flowers with vibrant purple filaments, which ultimately produce a fruit: the caper berry. The seed-filled fruit, generally the size of a big cocktail olive, is rather like a pickle. "They're really pucker-y," says Barrow. But, while their flavor is very similar to that of the buds that precede them, their significantly larger size and okra-like texture mean that their culinary uses are usually quite distinct.

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Like olives, both capers and caper berries are most palatable when cured—curing releases mustard oil from the bud, which gives it its characteristic zing. Here again, American supermarkets are one-sided, mostly stocking capers brined in vinegar. Many experts agree, however, that dry-salted capers are superior in both flavor and texture. Salt-curing works magic on the nubs, playing up their floral, fruity flavors without drowning them in a one-note overtone, as vinegar tends to do. When cured in salt, effuses Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, "the caper bud undergoes an astonishing transformation: its radish and onion notes are displaced by the distinct aroma of violets and raspberries!" Barrow offers a different reading on the brine debate, suggesting that the choice of preservation is a regional one, with the delicate French opting for the tiniest of buds, brined in vinegar, and other Mediterraneans interested in the larger, rustic-looking, salt-packed variety. (Caper berries, on the other hand, are almost always pickled in vinegar.)

Capers in the Kitchen

Pasta puttanesca. [Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Chef Sara Jenkins, who grew up hopscotching across the Mediterranean before settling in New York City to open Porchetta and Porsena, agrees with Barrow that capers are a pantry essential; these tangy little buds are often just the thing needed to make a dish sing. "The great thing about capers," explains Jenkins, "is that they serve as flavor enhancers, flavor boosters. They're the base layer on which you build up your dish." She uses them as a briny foundation for pretty much everything, adding them to fish, to lamb, to tomato sauces. And she recommends them in all things mayonnaise—"even tuna salads without mayo!"

The caper makes its way into countless Mediterranean dishes, and it's not uncommon to see it paired with its salty compatriots, the anchovy and the olive. There is, naturally, the Southern Italian pasta classic puttanesca, but the caper-olive-anchovy triumvirate is no less winning a combination in a punchy black olive or tuna tapenade. For an easy, flavorful weeknight dinner, toss spaghetti with olive oil, a bit of garlic, capers, and tomatoes or asparagus and prosciutto. But pasta's just the start—capers do wonders for lean proteins, adding a piquant bite to skate wings, whitefish, and chicken (whether braised or browned). Pan-fried in olive oil, they lend briny crunch to a plate of soft-shell crabs, and, when chopped or blended into a mint sauce, they pair beautifully with heartier red meats, like lamb or steak. They're great at jazzing up vegetable dishes that risk falling flat—think cauliflower or zucchini—and they're the key to a great caponata. When roasted until slightly crisp, they make for a revolutionary Caesar salad, or you can deep-fry a batch for a surprising addition to your next salumi plate. And, of course, they're never more at home than on an appetizing platter with smoked fish and fresh bagels.

Deviled eggs with fried capers. [Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Barrow likes capers in her deviled eggs and in her homemade Thousand Island dressing. She has fond early memories of her mother's caper-filled celeriac rémoulade ("so much better than coleslaw!"). But what she loves most is how capers effortlessly dress up a dish: "Sauté a simple protein, say, fish or chicken, and add a simple lemon sauce. Simple dinner. If you add capers, suddenly you're fancy!" What's piccata, after all, if not a simple protein with lemon and capers? In many ways, this is capers' true gift to your pantry: They can make a great meal out of very little.

As for the caper berry, it's mostly at home on its own, as a proper pickle, served with antipasti plates and bowls of olives. Noah Bernamoff, founder and owner of New York's Mile End Delicatessen, tells me how his discovery of caper berries was something of a revelation: "When I first moved to New York, we were living in Park Slope, and we went to this great spot, the Stone Park Cafe. I ordered a Bloody Mary, and it came with a caper berry. Wow, I thought, this is delicious! And crunchy. I don't know why they're not more ubiquitous." Barrow also likes her caper berries with a side of alcohol. "When I put them in dirty martinis, people's eyeballs fall out their heads," she laughs. "It's time capers had their moment in the sun!"