Capers are great additions to sandwiches, pastas and salad dressings, lending recipes their acidic and yet delightful flavor. But while they’re a common sight across various cuisines, not a lot of people understand how capers are made or where they come from.
Capers usually come in glass jars in grocery and health food stores, and are never used fresh. Rather, they are pickled or cured with salt.1
What Are Capers?
Capers are actually pickled immature flower buds of the Capparis spinosa bush.2 These plants are easily distinguishable in the wild because of their thorny appearance and their beautiful white or pink flowers with purple stamens.
But while these flowers are extremely beautiful, capers usually need to be harvested before they can even appear or bloom.3
If these flowers are allowed to mature and be pollinated, they develop into caperberries. These fruits usually grow to the size of olives and are filled with multiple small seeds, which grow bigger as the berry matures. Just like capers, caperberries are prepared by brining or curing, lending them a rather similar flavor. However, it’s been said that capers have a more floral and delicate texture and taste.4
The Capparis spinosa plant has also been used throughout history for pharmacological purposes. In ancient Egypt, the root of the caper plant was used to ease liver and kidney diseases, while ancient Romans used it to alleviate paralysis. Other illnesses that the Capparis spinosa plant was used for include toothaches, fever, headaches, painful menstruation, rheumatism and sciatica.5
Where Do Capers Come From?
Capers, which originally thrived in the Mediterranean region, are now cultivated in different parts of the world. Today, the top producers of capers are Africa, Spain and Italy. While caper cultivation is now possible in various domestic settings, these plants are usually found in the wild in hardy and harsh environments. The caper plant is accustomed to extreme climates, thriving best in intense daylight. However, it does not do well in cold climates and usually has trouble growing in the frost.6
Often handpicked in the summer, capers may be harvested daily from well-established shrubs, with the smallest buds being deemed more valuable.7 Because of the variations in sizes, capers may be divided into six categories, namely:8
7 to 8 mm
8 to 9 mm
9 to 11 mm
||11 to 13 mm
What Do Capers Taste Like?
If you’ve eaten dishes that contain capers, you might be familiar with their sharp, tangy and salty flavor. But because of their distinct and often overpowering flavor, some people consider them to be an acquired taste. For some, they taste salty and acidic, while others note them to be a little lemony, which make them good additions to pasta sauces to provide a flare of flavor.9
Get These Capers Health Benefits
The Mediterranean diet is considered to be one of the healthiest diets in the world, because it contains an abundance of fruits, vegetables and healthy oils. As capers originate from the Mediterranean, it comes as no surprise that they are mainstays in this particular cuisine.10
While capers are small, these flower buds are packed with essential vitamins and minerals that may help you reach your body’s daily requirements. They are also rich in alkaloids, flavonoids, terpenoids and tocopherols, which play an important role in regulating cellular enzyme function, inflammatory responses and other important body functions.11,12 Some of the characteristics of capers you might benefit from include:
- Diuretic and antihypertensive — A 2007 animal study from the American Journal of Pharmacology and Toxicology showed that Capparis spinosa extracts increased sodium and potassium excretion, leading to lowered blood pressure.13
- Anti-inflammatory — Two studies from BioMed Central show that capers contain compounds that can suppress interleukin-17 and promote interleukin-4 expression, which are important factors in easing or stopping inflammation from occurring.14,15 They also contain chondroprotective properties that may rival indomethacin, a nonsteroid anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) typically prescribed for pain and swelling.16
- Antidiabetic — In a 2017 animal study from the Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine, researchers found that the aqueous extract of the Capparis spinosa plant contains antihyperglycemic properties, which may positively impact diabetes patients by regulating glucose production and restoring insulin sensitivity.17
What Are Possible Substitutes for Capers?
If for some reason, you can’t get a hold of some capers or you’re not very keen on using them in your recipes, you can always substitute them with the following:
- Chopped green olives, like capers, are preserved through brining or curing. This gives them a salty flavor similar to what capers are well known for. Green olives contain high amounts of vitamin A, which may benefit you if you decide on this alternative.18 However, make sure that you choose olives that were fermented in salt and not the lye-brined ones, as this process leaves an unpleasant chemical aftertaste.19
- Pickled nasturtium seeds, sometimes referred to as poor man’s capers, have a flavor that is similar to capers when pickled and prepared the right way.20 In fact, a 1987 article from The New York Times notes that nasturtium seeds may be the most successful alternative to the shortage of capers because of the capric acid they contain.21
- Chopped pickles, or pickled cucumbers, usually have the same salty and slightly acidic flavor of capers.
While the texture and flavor of the recipes might change without the signature saltiness of capers, these substitutes may bring their own twists to your dish.
Caper Recipes to Try Today
If you’re not that confident in the quality of the capers available in the market, there’s always the option of planting your own capers and brining them in your kitchen. This will ensure that you’re getting high-quality capers without the risk of exposing yourself and your family to harmful additives.
But before we go to the procedure for pickling capers, note that fresh capers need to be soaked before the pickling process. To do this, put fresh capers in a glass jar and pour in clean water. The flower buds should be completely submerged. Soak the capers for 24 hours and drain. Replace the drained water with clean water anew. Do this every day for three days.22 Now that you have your soaked capers, here’s a step-by-step guide to preparing your own capers:23
How to Pickle Capers at Home
- Make a brine out of the vinegar, water and salt.
- Place your soaked capers in a glass jar and pour in the brine.
- Let the capers rest for three days. After this period, you can taste the capers to check the flavor.
- If the flavor is right for you, you can start using the capers in your recipes.
Now that you have your homemade capers, the next step for you would be to learn some healthy and tasty caper recipes you can try at home. Here are a few you can try out:
Quinoa Salad With Fresh Figs, Walnuts and Capers
|✓ 1/4 cup blanched asparagus
||✓ 1 tablespoon toasted walnuts, chopped
||✓ 3 cups quinoa, cooked and cooled
|✓ 1 medium cucumber, diced
||✓ 2 tablespoons capers
||✓ 1 shallot, sliced
|✓ 1 large handful arugula, chopped
||✓ 1 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered
||✓ 1/4 cup coconut oil
|✓ Handful fresh parsley, chopped
||✓ Handful fresh mint, chopped
||✓ Juice of 1 lemon
|✓ Zest of 1 lemon
||✓ 8 to 10 fresh black mission figs, quartered
- Cook the quinoa according to the package instructions.
- Blanch the asparagus. Gently toss the ingredients together in a large bowl. Serve.
(Recipe from Organic Authority)24
Zucchini and Capers Sauté
|✓ 3 tablespoons coconut oil
||✓ 3 cloves of garlic, minced
||✓ 3 to 5 zucchinis, sliced
|✓ Pinch of red pepper chili flakes
||✓ 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
||✓ 1/2 lemon or lime, juiced
|✓ Salt and pepper, to taste
||✓ 5 basil leaves, chopped
- In a medium skillet, heat coconut oil over medium-high heat. Sauté garlic until fragrant.
- Add the zucchini and capers. Sauté until lightly browned.
- Add the red pepper chili flakes, salt, pepper, capers and lemon juice. Sauté for another two to three minutes.
- Remove from the heat. Add the basil leaves. Serve.
(Recipe from Down to Earth)25
Roast Cauliflower With Anchovies and Capers
|✓ 2 cauliflowers, cut lengthwise into 1 cm slices
||✓ 3 tablespoons coconut oil
||✓ 75 grams unsalted grass fed butter, plus an extra knob
|✓ 60 grams dried breadcrumbs
||✓ 6 anchovy fillets in coconut oil, drained and chopped
||✓ 1 small garlic clove, crushed
|✓ 2 tablespoons nonpareil capers, rinsed
||✓ 1 lemon zest, plus a squeeze of juice
||✓ 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
- Heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Put the cauliflower slices on a baking tray. Splash with coconut oil. Season well and roast for 30 to 35 minutes until cooked through.
- Meanwhile, melt a knob of butter in a frying pan set over medium heat. Add the bread crumbs. Stir for a few minutes until crisp and golden. School into a bowl and let cool. Wipe out the pan.
- When the cauliflower is cooked, melt the butter and anchovies in the pan over medium heat. Stir. Let simmer until golden. This usually takes about four minutes. Stir in garlic.
- Remove from the heat. Add the capers.
- Add a squeeze of lemon juice. Pour over the cauliflower. Sprinkle the chopped parsley, lemon zest and crumbs.
(Adapted from Waitrose)26
Simple Lemon Caper Sauce
|✓ 2 teaspoons capers
||✓ 4 tablespoons grass fed butter
||✓ 1 small clove of garlic, minced
|✓ 2 tablespoons lemon juice
||✓ 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- Drain and rinse the capers. Chop the capers coarsely if they are too large.
- Melt the butter in a small skillet over low heat. Add the minced garlic, lemon juice, zest and capers.
- Bring the mixture to a simmer. Continue to cook for 30 seconds more.
- Add the chopped fresh parsley. Stir and remove from the heat.
- You can add this sauce to cooked fish or chicken. Serve.
(Recipe from The Spruce Eats)27
Capers Nutrition Facts You Should Know
Capers are rich in calcium, magnesium, potassium, folate, and vitamins A and K. It has vitamin C, niacin, iron, phosphorus and zinc in trace amounts. If you’re trying to keep track of your nutrient levels, it’s always a good idea to monitor your foods’ nutritional facts. To help you with that, here’s a table for the nutritional content of capers:28
Per 100 grams
Capers: The Tangy Way to Regulate Blood Sugar
As mainstays in Italian cuisine, capers are a favorite for their distinct tangy and salty taste, adding a new layer of flavor to numerous dishes. But aside from their culinary use, capers are also worth something in the realm of health. Capers contain numerous flavonoids, minerals and vitamins that may help you maintain good health. Their anti-inflammatory, anti-hypertensive and antidiabetic properties may even assist in keeping certain conditions at bay
However, take note that these properties may also cause interferences if you’re on certain medications, especially diabetes drugs.29 If you want to consume capers regularly, make sure that you consult a health practitioner to avoid any interactions that may arise. Remember that moderation is key in almost everything you do or consume.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Capers
Q: Are capers good for you?
A: While capers may not look like much because of their small package, these flower buds can provide you with a variety of vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin A, vitamin C, magnesium and potassium. Capers also boast of numerous health benefits, such as their anti-inflammatory and antihypertensive properties.
Q: What is the flavor of capers?
A: Because of the brining and pickling process, capers have a slightly acidic and salty flavor. Their distinct flavor and aroma can complement a variety of dishes, which explains their popularity in numerous cuisines.
Q: Can you eat capers straight from the jar?
A: Unlike olives, you cannot eat capers straight from the jar. While they don’t require cooking, salt-packed capers need to be rinsed before eating because they’re usually unbearably salty.30
Q: Can you cook capers?
A: Yes. Capers can be eaten either raw or cooked. If you’re going to be cooking with capers, you can add them to pasta and salsas. You may also fry capers to add a crispy garnish to salads or wherever you want to add them.31
Q: Are capers a fruit or vegetable?
A: Capers do not fall under either of these categories, as they are actually the immature flower buds of the Capparis spinosa plant. They are closer to being seeds because caperberries are often regarded as the plant’s fruit.