Capers and Caper Berries 101
I'm often asked by city home cooks what to keep in a pantry. Before I make any suggestions I first ask a couple of questions of my own. First, what do you like to cook and eat? And second, how much space do you have?
Most of us have our own pantry essentials. For me they include olive oil, red wine vinegar, canned chickpeas, hot sauce, canned San Marzano tomatoes, tuna packed in olive oil, a tube of harissa, Dijon mustard, low sodium soy sauce, and in the refrigerator, a block of Parmesan, fresh lemons, and unsalted butter. But also on my pantry shortlist are capers: tiny nonpareils in brine, slightly larger Pantelleria capers packed in salt, and jars of voluptuous caperberries.
Some home cooks may think it's a stretch to call capers a pantry essential. But for me they are an ingredient that can immediately add bright flavor and complexity to what would otherwise be rather ordinary. If you only know capers as a garnish for smoked salmon, I'm glad to tell you more about this ancient and tasty ingredient.
Capers Versus Caper Berries
The caper plant, Capparis Spinosa, is a Meditteranean bush that grows in arid landscapes in Italy, Spain, Morocco, Turkey, and more recently, in California. The plant grows year-round and while its cultivation has experienced a boom in the last thirty or so years due to rising demand, in fact harvesting the buds of the caper bush is centuries old, written about in the Bible and other ancient documents. Thought by many to have medicinal qualities, capers have been recommended as a cure for hangovers, to improve mental acuity, treat sunburns, and help with circulation.
Capers are the tiny green edible buds of the caper plant, which if left unharvested produce white and pink flowers, followed by berries. The caper berry, which is also pale green, is picked with its stem, and is about the size of a grape or olive. Both the buds and berries are edible and are pickled in brine, vinegar, or salt.
They have nearly no calories; a tablespoon has about two calories and zero fat. There is a trace of carbohydrates but due to their preservation in brine or salt, capers are high in sodium, even after being rinsed.
Capers, most popularly those called nonpareils, are tiny -- up to 7 mm -- and usually sold pickled in brine in a narrow glass jar. Sometimes capers are larger, also packed in brine, with the larger ones judged to be less desirable, although in fact they taste the same and can be easier to chop.
Many say that the Cadillac of capers is grown on the Italian island of Pantelleria, about 100 kilometers southwest of Sicily. This tiny island, which has no fresh water source, has over the centuries been a strategic military base to both ancient Roman soldiers and WWII Allied forces, and today is home to about 3,000 residents, one of whom is Giorgio Armani who has a beach house there. Its climate is arid and its rocky landscape makes it unwelcoming to many crops but ideal for cultivating the caper plant.
Pantelleria capers are hand picked before they've ripened, stored in tubs to ferment, and then covered in sea salt. This process gives them a more distinctive flavor than those simply pickled in brine or vinegar. Some think the flavor is milder, others say it's stronger. I think they're more floral with a salty bite.
While capers are the plant's flower buds, the berries are its fruit. They are picked and packed with their stems intact, are tender to bite with a texture similar to a pickle or olive, and contain tiny seeds that give a very subtle crunch, in the same way as kiwis but smaller and more subtly so. Brined caper berries have a pickle-like sour flavor. If you don't like the crunch of the seeds, try to choose smaller berries.
- Select your capers depending upon how you'll use them. If you're going to add tiny nonpareils to a sauce, there's no need to buy costly Pantelleria capers, which can cost more than $14.00 for a small 100-gram jar. Jarred and brined nonpareil capers, which cost about $2.00 for the same amount, are fine and you can look for either a good house brand, e.g., Whole Foods, or a quality brand like Roland, which specializes in fine imported food products. An 8 oz. jar of caper berries will cost about $5.00.
- Capers and caper berries are sold in most food markets. Look for them in the section with pickles and olives. Some stores, including New York's Zabar's, will sell capers and caper berries in a barrel, alongside ones filled with olives.
- Choose capers that look pale olive green in the jar with no debris. Once the jar is opened, refrigerate it.
- If you don't use capers often, resist buying a big jar. While a partially used jar of capers will keep fine in the refrigerator -- be sure to keep any remaining capers submerged in their original brine -- their flavor can still fade. So don't buy vastly ahead of what you'll use.
- Pantelleria capers are a good choice when you're using capers as a garnish, when you'll get to appreciate their distinctive flavor.
- Rinse capers before adding them to a recipe. This is particularly important for those that have been packed with salt, which should also be soaked in cool water for a few minutes to make sure any excess salt is removed. But rinse, too, those that were packed in brine. I do this by putting the capers into a small fine sieve or a tea strainer and putting them under the faucet with cool water gently running over the small buds. Then give a shake to remove any excess water.
- I like to use caper berries in martinis in place of traditional olives. Maybe it's a bit of an affectation but I love how they look in a frosted martini glass as well as their pickle-y taste. In this case, I do not rinse the caper berries since I'm fine with any drops of brine that may go along with the berry and may add a bit more if I'm aiming for a dirty martini.
- Even if you rinse capers, they are still salty which is why we love them. But keep this in mind when using any capers in a recipe and hold back adding salt until you can taste the dish after the capers have been added so that you don't end up over-salting.
Cooking With Capers
Capers are an essential ingredient in several classic dishes. Along with mustard they help create steak tartare's bright taste. Capers are used in tartar and rémoulade sauces which in turn are a popular match with fish and celery root to make céleri rémoulade. They are also added to vinaigrettes, used in Italian tonnato sauce with poached veal or turkey, and included in potato or tuna salad along with tiny dice of red onion and celery.
Here is an easy tartar sauce adapted from Canal House Cooks Every Day:
Combine in a small bowl:
1 1/4 cup mayonnaise (Hellman's regular or light are both very good for this)
5 chopped cornichons
1 tablespoon chopped capers with a small splash of their brine
4 finely chopped sprigs each of fresh parsley, dill, and tarragon
Add 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Makes 1 1/2 cups that can keep refrigerated for up to 1 week.
Capers also add an acidic bite and distinctive flavor to chicken piccata. Here's a recipe that would make an easy weeknight dinner.
Caponata is a sweet and sour (known as agridolce) Sicilian relish made with eggplant, vinegar, olives, garlic, tomatoes, and of course, capers. Similar to ratatouille, caponata can be used to top pieces of grilled bread, as a side to a piece of fish, or as an antipasto. There are many recipes but this one from Saveur is classic and authentic.
Pasta alla puttanesca, said to be named for "ladies of the evening" who might want to make a quick meal with whatever was already in the pantry, works just as well for those of us who have other professions. Best made with a long pasta such as spaghetti or fedelini or linguine that get easily coated with the sauce, this dish is made with ingredients that are easy to have on hand: canned tomatoes, olives, anchovies, and capers. This recipe from Gourmet is classic with two exceptions: one, I think its inclusion of fresh basil confuses the other flavors and add to the fuss and cost of making the dish and I'd leave it out; and two, oil-cured olives will provide a richer taste than the usually brine-cured Kalamata. Remember to thoroughly rinse the capers and as the anchovies and olives are also cured, there's no need to add any other salt.
Caper berries can be more than a decoration in an iced cold martini. Because of their sour bite, they make a perfect addition to a beet and feta cheese salad. They can be stuffed with a dab of softened goat cheese as an hors d'oeuvre. A few caper berries are an ideal garnish to a serving of hummus or a Greek salad.
Caper berries can also be sliced in half and added to a piquant sauce for veal, chicken, pork or fish, in the same way that capers are used in a chicken or fish piccata.
If you want to cook from your pantry but want something easier and faster than pasta alla puttanesca, we've got another way to use capers for a quick and acutely simple pasta supper that is adapted from The Silver Spoon Pasta cookbook, published by Phaidon. See our link to Spaghetti With Capers.