When I was a kid, whenever my parents would have company my mom would serve caponata on crackers. I couldn’t get enough of the classic “umami bomb”—tangy with tomatoes, mellowed with eggplant, sweet with onions, yet surprisingly briny, as it turned out, from capers! (Here’s a really great caponata recipe to make at home.)
Back then it didn’t occur to me to ask, “what are capers?” All I saw were little green peppercorn-like thingies that had a soft bite and tasted a bit like olives. When I started cooking with Mom, she’d have me sprinkle capers on salmon. But it wasn’t until my own kids asked me to make pasta with puttanesca sauce, just like the kids in A Series of Unfortunate Events, that I decided to find out exactly what capers are.
What Are Capers?
Capers are immature flower buds from the Capparis spinosa (aka the “caper bush”), which grow all over the Mediterranean, just like olives do. Caper buds are picked before they can bloom into flowers. Then they’re pickled in vinegar or preserved in salt because eaten freshly picked, they’d taste no better than a freshly picked olive, which is to say, not so good. The smaller the caper, the earlier it was picked. Larger capers taste more flavorful, but their texture is a bit loose, owing to the fact that they have a tiny little flower inside them that was almost ready to burst forth.
When Should You Use Them?
Capers add a bright, briny burst of flavor to savory dishes. Like I said, caponata is one of my favorites. These pickled flower buds also taste great with smoked salmon (we all know bagels and lox, right?). But if you want to know the food that really sings when you add capers, it’s chicken piccata, where it gets even brighter from its pairing with lemon juice but then mellows out with the addition of butter and chicken stock. Here’s one of our favorite recipes for chicken piccata. It doesn’t say to do this, but my advice is to sprinkle it with another spoonful of capers right before you serve it.
But don’t stop with the classics! You can try this yummy Mediterranean chicken skillet. It’s a great introduction to this salty ingredient. Capers also work well in these smoked salmon bites. If you think of capers as a bit like an olive, you’ll start to find great places to add them to your meals.