They may be small, but capers pack a big punch when it comes to flavor. Capers, which are commonly found in Mediterranean dishes, are actually just immature flower buds that are pickled or preserved in salt. Once brined, the buds add a sharp flavor burst to everything from salads and smoked salmon to pasta and chicken piccata.
They may be the cherry on top of classic Mediterranean dishes, but briny, salty capers don't work in every recipe. Here's how — and when — to cook with capers at home, plus a brief history on this tiny flavorful flower bud.
As we mentioned, capers are immature flower buds of the caper bush (Capparis spinosa), which commonly grows along oceans and seas. You can find these bushes across the Mediterranean, but horticulture experts believe they likely originated in West or Central Asia. That said, their Mediterranean roots go deep. Greek physician and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides and Roman scholar Pliny the Elder both made note of caper products in their records. That's why many Italian and Greek recipes call for them.
Cooking With Capers
Capers are often sold either in a brine or dry. Natalie Dahm, a Michigan-based chef and manager of Beaver Island's Dalwhinnie Bakery and Deli, suggests a quick-and-easy protocol for unpacking and preparing the capers before cooking with them.
"If you're using capers from a brine, you can just drain them and add them to a dish as-is," Dahm says via email. "If you're using dry, salted capers, which come packed in salt, they need to be soaked and rinsed a couple of times, otherwise the salt is overpowering."
Dahm says she uses capers most frequently in sauces, dressings and salads. "I love the saltiness from their brine and almost a little acidity that they bring to dishes," she explains. "They add a sort of brightness to dishes. They complement lemon and even sweeter things like golden raisins and dried apricots."
Like Dahm, food blogger Philip Tam who runs Suit and Apron enjoys cooking with capers. His biggest tip? Understand their dynamic flavor before cooking and remember: A little can go a long way.
"The brine most capers are packed with is very pungent and can easily overwhelm a dish if you're not careful," Tam says via email. He agrees with Dahm about the importance of soaking capers packed in dry salt. "If you skip this step, you can end up with capers that are almost unbearably salty, and not get to enjoy the flavor of the capers themselves."
As products of the Mediterranean, it only makes sense that capers would work best in dishes from countries like Italy and Greece. But Dahm, who used capers frequently while working at Italian restaurants, says caper-friendly recipes run the gamut.
"You'll find them accompanying classic dishes such as smoked salmon platters, beef tartare, Caesar salads, chicken piccata, veal or pork scallopini, and pasta puttanesca, to name a few," Dahm says. "Lemon caper sauce is also very common with fish or shrimp in pasta dishes."
Chicken piccata is Tam's favorite dish with capers. "The capers really are the star of the show, and add that salty, slightly citrusy bite that makes you go back in for more," he says. "More recently, I've tried adding capers as a pizza topping — baked alongside other toppings — and that was a delicious discovery."
Capers Are More Than Flavorful; They're Also Healthy
While they're renowned for that briny flavor, capers do more than just spice up food. They're packed with health perks, too, like other foods common in the Mediterranean diet. According to a 2007 study by the American Chemical Society, capers are a major source of antioxidants, and they may have the power to help the body fight cancer and heart disease when added to meals — particularly those with large meat portions.
"Caper extract helped prevent the formation of certain byproducts of digested meat that have been linked by others to an increased risk of cancer and heart disease," according to an analysis of the study by Science Daily. "That beneficial effect occurred even with the small amounts of caper typically used to flavor food."