What Are Capers, and How Do You Cook with Them?

Updated: Jun. 12, 2024

Small, green, briny capers are a delicious addition to chicken, pasta, seafood and more. But what are capers?

As a home cook, I never thought to buy capers. I associated the bright green buds with a fussy garnish on restaurant plates—hardly an essential pantry staple. Then I visited Italy. In Italian recipes, the savory green caper tops many dishes, from stewed beef to fresh pasta.

The trick? Think of capers as a flavoring, like salt or spice. Once you’ve gotten a taste, you’ll want to keep a jar in the house.

What are capers?

Capers are actually flower buds from the capparis spinosa (aka the “caper bush”), which grows throughout the Mediterranean. The buds are plucked immaturely (unripened and not-yet-bloomed), then dried and pickled in salt, brine or vinegar. This process transforms the bud into the savory, juicy, citrus-spiked caper that’s ready to eat.

What do capers taste like?

Capers taste super savory. They’re salty, briny and bright. Like lemons, they can taste a bit sour and puckery, especially if you’ve bought a larger sized caper. Capers pack a serious flavor punch: A spoonful of capers can flavor a whole pan. They add an unmistakable umami note to dishes.

Capers vs. Olives

Capers and green olives have similar flavor profiles, but capers veer saltier and fresher; they don’t have the oiliness of olives. Olives can taste a little more floral or even buttery. Unlike flower bud capers, olives are actually a fruit that grows on the olive tree—a stone fruit, to be specific. (Hence the pits!) Both olives and capers are often enjoyed in Mediterranean food.

Capers vs. Caperberries

While capers are the unripened buds of the caper bush, caperberries are the fruits that grow from the unpicked buds. They’re larger than capers, about the size of a green olive, with a pleasantly crunchy texture and mild flavor. Like capers, they’re commonly pickled and jarred.

How to Cook with Capers

salmon bites with capers on topTMB Studio

Capers taste great in savory recipes that could benefit from a jolt of umami. Add capers directly to meat or a sauce as it cooks to infuse the entire dish with flavor. Or, sprinkle capers over the finished dish to serve as a salty, briny top note.

To prepare capers for cooking, scoop them out of their jar and strain away any brine. Larger capers should be minced or chopped before cooking, since biting into an entire caper might overwhelm the other flavors on the plate.

Caper Varieties

At the grocery store, you’ll find a few varieties of capers. They’re the same type of fruit, but harvested at different times in the bud’s development. The smaller the caper, the earlier the bud was picked—and the more it costs.

Small capers are firm, meaty and mild. Varieties include nonpareils, surfines and capucines. Bigger buds are softer, have more flavor and can slant on the acidic side. Larger varieties include capotes, fines and grusas.

Caper Substitutes

Keep two things in mind when substituting capers: Their bright, salty flavor and tender, juicy texture. Many types of olives, especially green, are an ideal substitute. Preserved lemons are equally savory and even brighter. Jarred artichoke hearts offer both complex flavor and juiciness. Bright, piquant gherkins or cornichons, finely chopped, are also a fine swap for capers.

Other savory caper substitutes include salty feta cheese, chopped roasted nuts and fresh herbs, such as thyme. Flaky sea salt might be the simplest swap possible, added as a finishing touch to a plate.

Recipes That Use Capers

chicken picatta with capersTMB Studio

The most famous caper vehicle might be chicken piccata, the zippy pasta dish that balances capers with bright lemon juice, and smooths out the acid with plenty of butter and chicken stock. Both capers and lemon are a natural flavor match with seafood, as in this tilapia with caper sauce. Puttanesca, the wildly flavorful pasta sauce, doubles up on the brine with both olives and capers.

Caponata, the famous eggplant stew, is brightened with chopped capers. All sorts of fish, especially fatty fishes like salmon, taste great with capers, as does smoked fish like lox. Add a spoonful of capers to a mustard vinaigrette, or sprinkle them over a hearty dinner salad, like a Cobb or a Caesar. Like olives, you can also add a dish of capers to a snack board with cheese and crackers, or bake them into a savory bread.

Are capers good for you?

Capers themselves are very good for you. They’re rich in antioxidants, vitamins A and E, iron and calcium. They’re also low in cholesterol. However, pickled capers are very high in sodium, which is not healthy to consume in large quantities. To reduce the sodium levels of capers, rinse them to remove excess brine before cooking.