Capers are really the pickled unopened flower buds from a Mediterranean shrub. They have an acid taste, not unlike that of goat's cheese. Capers are used particularly in Mediterranean cuisines in sauces, salads, pizza, and fish.
Capers are the flower buds of a perennial bush native to the Mediterranean region. The shrub reaches up to 3-6 ft (1-2 m) and caper bushes grow wild, in profusion, through the rocky grounds, walls, and ruins in hot Mediterranean countries. The stems carry thick glossy leaves, prickly in the wild variety; flowers in stalks are followed by pear shaped fruits.
The small caper buds are picked, dried, and then pickled in wine vinegar brine. Their white flowers, not dissimilar to wild roses, have the shortest lifespan, as they open in the morning and are dead by noon.
Capers must be picked by hand, as the buds have to be picked every morning, just as they reach the proper size. The larger, coarser buds are also harvested; those are the ones that can be seen packed in salt where capers are abundant. They can taste good, but are often of an inferior quality and can turn rancid quickly. Capers have been an important flavoring in the Mediterranean region since ancient times.
How to identify capers
Capers range in size from the minute nonpareil (1/8 inch - 3 mm) from southern France, considered the finest, to those called capotes (5/8 inch–15 mm), with the Italian capers, which can be as big as the tip of your little finger, in between. The Spanish imported stemmed caperberries are about the size of a cocktail olive.
Capers are generally available pickled in brine, in a bottle or jar, but can also be salted and sold loose, in bulk; these should be rinsed before use to remove the excess salt. Gourmet tasters think it is worth looking for the nonpareilles because their flavor is much finer.
How to use and store
The pungent flavor of capers lends piquancy to many sauces and condiments. Capers are also used as garnish for meat, fish and vegetable dishes.
Their characteristic flavor develops only when the buds are pickled in wine vinegar. Capers will keep indefinitely in jars, as long as they are covered in pickling liquid. Remove the capers carefully from liquid and chop or pound as required.
Capers are used in an ample array of cold sauces: tartare, remoulade, ravigote, gribiche; in the Provencal tapenade; in Italian salsa verde; often combined with anchovies in antipasti or pizzas. Capers are found in hot fish and meat sauces, and often served with fish. They are used in dishes like skate with black butter and the English caper sauce eaten with boiled mutton. Many times capers are added to steak tartare; they can also be added to meat stews to obtain a flavor out of the ordinary
Cooking with capers
If you don't have it, substitute 1 Tbs capers with:
- 1 Tbs green olives, chopped for a salad, whole to garnish a Martini or a cocktail
- 1 Tbs caper berries - the larger Spanish capers - as a garnish
- 1 Tbs chopped pickled cucumbers for a mock tartar sauce
- 1 Tbs chopped pickles as garnish, for a mock tartar sauce, or for cooking.
Use them in the conventional way first: serve smoked salmon or trout with some drops of lemon juice and a few scattered capers as a garnish; you can also add some chopped hard-boiled egg. Use any combination of these ingredients for appetizers or as sandwich filling, with some Romaine lettuce and fine slices of onion.
caparis spinosa 'inermis' (capparidaceae) caper - French: câpre - German: kaper - Italian: cappero, sottaceto - Spanish: alcaparra.
How to grow capers
In their natural habitat, the Mediterranean area, caper plants grow wild or are cultivated in plantations. They are a greenhouse plant in northern temperate climates. The plant can be propagated from cuttings.
Capers grow mainly in Mediterranean countries, notably southern France, Italy, Spain and Algeria. They are also grown in California and other Mediterranean-type climates.